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Posts Tagged ‘Natalie Goldberg’

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December Bloom, Minneapolis, Minnesota, iPhone Shots, December 24th, 2019, photo © 2019 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

 

On Winter Solstice, after two years of dormancy and a flirt with death, the orchid bloomed. The Pacific Sunspots was a gift from Liz on a birthday that crossed decades. I remember opening the wrapper on the deck of Indria, our little cottage. We have moved into an apartment now, simplified our lives. The blooms fill me with joy.

But I have grown lax in my practices. We had been toying with the idea of meeting friends in Santa Fe this winter and signing up for a haiku retreat at Upaya Zen Center. On Christmas Eve, all the pieces came together. Plane tickets were reasonable and there were still openings. Liz and I texted our friends who were driving home from Christmas Eve dinner. We booked our flights and registered — we three were the last to sign up before the retreat was marked Full. The hair stood up on the back of our necks.

On the day after Christmas (at the New Moon Solar Eclipse), I juggled bins in the studio to try to set up a workable writing space. One old box was full of practice notebooks from Taos writing retreats. I pulled one off the top. It was marked October/December of 2006. The detail was mesmerizing; I had forgotten all the insecurities that surface in silence. It can be painful to sit with yourself.

There was a color photograph tucked into a card of a wintry gate near the pigeon roost at Mabel’s. I studied the faces of Natalie, Maria, and the 21 people who attended the four-season Intensive that year. Some have become teachers and grandparents, retired, or moved across country. Many have published their work. Several have passed on to the other side. What happens to our art and writing when we die?

I went back through the notebook with a yellow highlighter and revisited the words I had written at a different time in my life. There were writing practices about a trip to Georgia, a pilgrimage with my mother to research ancestry. We searched cemetery plots in the rain and finally found the overgrown grave of her step-sister who died shortly after birth (I’d like to turn these into a finished piece). There were practices of dribble where I never dropped down into my body. They offered up a study of the crazy minute-to-minute thoughts that go on in one’s mind.

There were writing practices about the ghosts in Mabel’s room, the four-poster bed Dennis Hopper wanted to cut up with a chainsaw, the dogs and coyotes I heard roaming the Taos wilderness at night. In the paper margins were notes on bell ringing, mudras, zafus, and zabutons, and a schedule of the day trip to the plaza and the O’Keeffe museum in Santa Fe. There was scratchy handwriting, sometimes barely legible, of erratic emotions and thoughts that spill on to the page when we stop talking.

I had forgotten so much; and remembered everything.

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I’m excited for the possibilities of 2020: photography and practice, completing finished pieces, attending the haiku retreat in Santa Fe. It will be hard to drop into the discipline I once felt at the core. I could fail, but I have faith. When you look back a decade at your younger self, the creeping roots that once clawed their way into rich, black earth searching for nourishment spring forward like orchid tendrils in the sun — fortified aerial roots.

We were required to keep a log that year of our practices, a daily reminder of the commitment to ourselves and our writing. I’ll leave that practice from the old notebook in the comments below, a reminder from the ghosts of December past: Continue under all circumstances. Don’t be tossed away. Make positive effort for the good.

 

 


Handwritten notes in my October/December 2006 practice notebook from dharma talks and one-on-ones with Natalie Goldberg. I am grateful for everything she has taught me. And for the community of artists, writers, and contributors who helped create redRavine. It is a place I can return to feel grounded.

  • Follow the person behind you
  • Everyone feels insecure. It’s just what happens when we sit.
  • Rest. Make space.
  • Don’t push. Let yourself be.
  • Writing is manual labor of the mind.
  • The best kind of structure should be organic.
  • What can you be patient about? Make a list to remind yourself.
  • Crash through what holds you back.
  • Be willing to wait a long time for understanding.
  • Show first. Then tell. Don’t give everything all at once.
  • Don’t manipulate. Respect the reader. Slowly lead them where you want them to go.
  • Read Siddhartha again. His total breakdown led to enlightenment.
  • Push yourself to what you don’t know and make statements anyway. It pushes you into knowing.
  • Sometimes you tell the writing. Other times, the writing tells you.
  • You can’t just be a writer for a month. You have to be willing to go through the whole process, all of it.
  • If you get stuck, go back to basics: I remember, I’m thinking about, What I see in front of me.
  • Read Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life.
  • Ride on the backs of the writers who came before you.
  • You can’t read a poem enough times.
  • Writing is about receiving. Sit still so you can receive.
  • When you walk in the mist, you get wet. -Dogen

 

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Reading old journals opens up the past revealing details of thoughts and memories long forgotten. When digging through writing notebooks, I ran across this 20-minute Writing Practice from June 16, 2013. It relates to redRavine and lessons that travel with me. In 2019 I still write about the places I have lived, loved, and have yet to travel.

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Loving A Place – 20min

Second cup of French Roast. Kiev sleeps in the window on a fuzzy white cat bed piled on top of blankets. I go over to the desk, organize the pile of envelopes, advertisements, and receipts into separate categories. Then over to the table in front of the couch, an object I love, a painted table that Liz picked up at an auction many years ago. There are painted squares of eggplant, mustard, and turquoise, edged with swipes of paintbrush black. I like surrounding myself with art objects I love. She did good on this purchase.

Next, I gather piles of books from around the living room, most recent purchases, some from a few months ago. I notice that I am halfway through a couple of books, have not even started two more. There is Mni Sota Makoce, The Great Journey, She Had Some Horses, Dragonfly Dance, Twelve Owls. There is The Round House, Hawk Ridge, First Words, and Dewy, The Library Cat. A copy of Refuge that I’ve had for over a decade sits next to the Canon wireless printer. I dug it off a book shelf when Liz, Teri, and I went to see Terry Tempest Williams earlier this year.

I organize the books by size. The heavy photography books like Lightroom 3, Digital Photography, Sony Nex, Black & White Photography are placed on the solid piano bench next to the Room & Board recliner. Liz and I both still buy good reference books; though I am sure many now look online for similar information, there is nothing like a good hardcover book with illustrations. I open the window next to me, feel the light summer wind blow past my face. The cottonwood is just about done dropping her seeds. The cranberry that Liz has named Snowball is fully mature and is blooming with umbrella-shaped pods of white on the tips of her branches.

I feel like I need grounding. I remember something my writing teacher wrote to me after I told her that I was sad she no longer toured or taught in Minnesota. She said she thought I would find Minnesota in her writing. I pick up The True Secret of Writing and thumb through the book, taking notice of the chapter headings that are laced across the top of each page. Loving A Place jumped out at me. I started to read about a layover in Minnesota on the way to Bismarck, North Dakota. This looks good, I think. North Dakota for Liz; Minnesota for me. I settle in to read.

She is staying with a friend who lives near Lake Calhoun. It’s the dead of winter in Minnesota, below zero, at temperatures where ice refuses to be melted by salt.

Two women jog past me, then later a man with a dog on a leash; otherwise, I have the place to myself. I pick up my pace feeling the tips of my fingers freezing. I can’t believe how much love I feel for this place with no logic to it. Sure I met my great Zen teacher here and lived a few blocks away from him for six years and, yes, I learned a lot about writing here, teaching in poet-in-the-schools and then resident writer for two years in a multiracial, multiethnic elementary school and then finally winning a big in-state fellowship that brought me to Israel and that recognized me as a writer. But stopping by a hackberry and staring across the flat white surface of the lake as cars at my back sped by, I understand love has no reason, makes no sense.

Finally I didn’t belong here, just as some of my best loves were not practical to live with or marry, but spoke to a part of me that yearned to be met. And as the years go by I remember them with all the unsheltered love I couldn’t manage to tame. Even though no one would call Minneapolis a wild place, besides its winters, for me, a second-generation Jewish girl from Brooklyn, it was my American frontier. I met people who grew up on Iowa farms, close to that sprawling wide American river, the Mississippi. I watched as people dug holes in the ice and fished and went to summer cabins in the north of their state. I come back to Minneapolis as a seminal home where I have no family and no roots, like a stranger in a strange place.

I’ve written about Minnesota a lot, struggling to escape what I thought was a weird attachment. Most Minnesotans think I hate their state. They are wrong. When I write about a place at all, even if I make fun of it, it’s because it’s stuck to my heart.

My friend Miriam says I have a jones for place. Some people love cars, old houses, the cut and line of clothes. What does our obsession tell us about ourselves?

-from The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language, Part Three: Elaborations, Loving A Place, p. 110 by Natalie Goldberg

She was right. There was Minnesota. At the end of the chapter, she completed her journey into North Dakota, teaching students, then taking a trip to Theo Roosevelt National Park where the horses run wild. I see that wild in Liz, for generations back, connected to harsh winters, unforgiving wind, broad-stroked skies. Loving a place means learning to love the people who live in that place. Because the place has shaped the people they have become. Some of us are products of many places, depending on where our lives have taken us. To live in a place is not always to love a place; we come to love places where we have not lived.

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NOTE: The name of the Minneapolis lake mentioned in this Writing Practice (Lake Calhoun) was changed in 2017 to Mde Maka Ska. The Dakota originally called the lake Mde Maka Ska (modern spelling Bdé Makhá Ská meaning Lake White Earth.
Related to the topic:  WRITING TOPIC – A PLACE TO STAND

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View from The Gatehouse,” Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos,
December 8, 2010, photo © 2010 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.

 





Sleepwalking I arrive
but silence awakens me
to our suffering










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On this second full day of silence, something snaps. I thought I came here because: I had vacation time to kill, I wanted to give myself a gift, it had been a long time since I’d been to a silent retreat in Taos with Natalie Goldberg. Today I am reminded that this is not play. When I go into silence, pain emerges. I wake up.

A quick step out of silence to give you an update, QM. I am also reminded that I met you here, that our friendship was created in silence and through the humanity and compassion we find when we come here. I am grateful for you, for all the friends I have met through Taos, and for everything I have learned about myself through coming here.

I am not writing much since arriving. In fact, I have only thus far written in the zendo during collective Writing Practice. Outside of class, I have spent my free time in The Gatehouse, where I’m staying. I’ve read, slept, and worked on collages. After I publish this post, I might venture out for a walk. I crave the cold air in my lungs.

It is good to be here, to wake up to all of me. To be humbled again.

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-Related to posts Sitting in Silence and haiku 2 (one-a-day)

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Moon Over Taos Mountain, Taos, New Mexico, January 2003, Tri-X black & white film print, photo © 2003-2011 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


December marks a time of darkness and silent reflection leading up to the Winter Solstice. Most Decembers, Natalie holds a writing retreat around the time of December 1st through 8th. In Zen, this time is called Rohatsu Sesshin and marks the enlightenment of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. For those heading to Taos to write, it’s a time of community solitude, an opportunity to go within.

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Slow Walking, Natalie Goldberg, Taos, New Mexico, January 2003, Tri-X B&W film print, photo © 2003-2011 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

This week ybonesy and several other writing friends will be making the jouney to Taos to sit in silence. I find comfort in knowing they will be there under Taos Mountain. When they sit, they sit for all of us. The zendo casts a wide circle. Everything is connected. We can sit and write in solidarity.

There will be long nights under Mabel’s lights and slow walks into Taos. Some will walk the morada, visit the graves of Mabel and Frieda, soak up places that Georgia walked on her first visits to New Mexico. Notebooks will be filled with Writing Practices, later to be reread.

Whatever’s at the surface will fall away. What’s important is what is underneath.  Underbelly.


Sit, Walk, Write. With Gratitude to a long lineage of mentors and teachers. For all that has come before. And all that will be.


Note: ybonesy and I met in Taos at a Writing Retreat. We’ll be forever connected by that thread. And the practice that became red Ravine. We’ve written many pieces on our time spent in Taos. To learn more about Sit, Walk, Write or our experience of studying with Natalie Goldberg at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, check out the links in this post. Or click on any of the posts under Taos. With Gratitude to our readers, those at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Natalie, and all the writers and artists who keep showing up to brave the silence. We are all in this together.


–posted on red Ravine, Sunday, December 5th, 2010

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I have guided my two daughters—starting at about age nine—through Writing Practice. In both cases, my girls had graduated from chapter books to Harry Potter. Each was at the time steeped in weekly exercises for spelling, capitalization, punctuation. Each was heading into the season of independent school admissions, which would include a writing test. And each daughter wanted to spend time with me.

So I pulled them into something that was precious in my life. We whipped out our notebooks and fast-writing pens, grabbed a topic from thin air, set the timer, and wrote. And when the timer went off, we read our writing out loud.
 
I learned a lot about the mechanics of writing in elementary and secondary school. Mrs. Salisbury got me hooked on spelling bees. Mrs. Fiske, who wore her ginger-colored hair in a tight flip, walked us through the ins and outs of the paragraph. Mrs. Rhodes cried in class—overcome by the beauty of imagination—while reading The Hobbit out loud to us. But somehow I managed to get through twelve years without knowing how to simply compose.

And so it only seemed right that what took me until my late 30s/early 40s to figure out, thanks to the help of Natalie Goldberg and Writing Down the Bones, should become an early and natural skill for my girls. Like riding a bike or swimming.
 
 
 
How it works
 
 

  1. Start with three of the basic rules of Writing Practice–Keep your hand moving; Don’t cross out; Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, or grammar. These three are tangible. Any kid can understand them. In fact, they will be music to a child’s ear. I don’t cover the other three rules of Writing Practice, which are: Lose control; Don’t think; Go for the jugular. These ones are, in my opinion, meant for us adults, who try to be in control at all times, analyze our way through most everything, and are inhibited. Kids don’t need to be told to lose control. (By the way, I also have never had to say, “You’re free to write the worst shit in America,” as Natalie does. Children don’t seem to worry about lousy writing at this age, even though they already tend to denigrate their art ability. My theory is that they never write in school; thus, they have no basis of comparison. Not so with art.)
  2.  

  3. Pick a topic that is easy to understand. It should be tangible, something like “Pickles” or “Socks.” The other day, I figured my youngest and I could use a recent topic from this blog, so I threw it out for consideration: I write because… “What does that mean?” my daughter asked. After trying a few times to explain how each of us might choose to write for different reasons, I went with something simpler. Apparently, she’s not in a place of needing to understand why she writes; she writes for the sake of writing.
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  5. Start with five minutes and work your way up. This was a precaution I took thinking that my daughters might get bored after five minutes, plus it was a gentle start to a new concept. However, we quickly worked our way to ten-minute stints.
  6. When it comes time to read out loud, remind your child that we’re going to each listen to one another with full attention, otherwise you might find her scanning her page. Also, the first time we read, I took the lead. Again, that was probably an unnecessary precaution, as neither daughter hesitated to jump in when after subsequent topics I asked if they wanted to read first.
  7. Do Writing Practice with one kid at a time, at least to start. This is one-on-one time. Having someone else there—even a sibling—might change the dynamic. There will be no trying to impress, no worrying about someone being better. Moms are safe. Plus, it’s an easy way to bond.
  8. When your kid questions the part about Spelling—and, believe me, she will—tell her that she’ll continue to learn how to spell in school and by reading books, but that this practice is mainly for learning how to write, write, write. Spelling is important, but spelling will come in its own time.
  9. Be aware that your own writing might go in almost any direction if you, too, are following the rules of Writing Practice. I try not to temper my writing, and consequently I have written my politics and at times my petty minutiae. You can always pass on reading, but doing so might send the message that not reading is an easy out.
  10. Get your kid her own notebook and fast-writing pen, and encourage her to write on her own in this same way whenever she feels like it. Kids this age know what it means to practice, perhaps for sports or music, so instill the idea while it makes sense. And when she comes ’round and suggests, “Mom, can we do Writing Practice now?” be ready to pull out your notebook and see Beginner’s Mind in action.




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Here are the Writing Practices (spelling errors corrected) that my youngest daughter and I did two weekends ago. Our topic was “Fall,” and we wrote for ten minutes.



Hers

Fall is when the leaves all fall to the ground. I like to jump into big piles of leaves. When the leaves start falling they change colors and they also crunch under your feet. Why is fall called fall? Maybe because leaves are falling. Another word for fall is autumn so I’m not sure why it’s called fall or autumn. The names have nothing in common. I also like sitting and watching the leaves fall off the trees. Sometimes all the leaves are a pain when you need to clean them up out of the pond and off the porch. Sonia likes fall I think because she has an excuse to stay inside. Otis and Rafie like to be inside too so they are happy when fall and winter come around. We have a lot of leaves to rake up so I’m happy because I want to jump in a big pile.




Mine

The trees outside the window make sure I know it is fall. They reach out over the window, and the sun shines behind them, shining through them, like light in a stained glass window. The colors are luminous, yellow shades and fading green shades. Even the dead tan leaves are beautiful, dangling in sparkling sunlight before letting go.

This morning I dress in a teal turtleneck sweater that I’ve had for ages, it seems. It’s too short from too many dryings, and it doesn’t keep my belly warm. Still, I head out to the corral with purpose, first holding my arms tight to try to keep the cold from hitting my core. But then I open up, drop my arms and swing them by my sides, in a sort of angry woman march. Except I’m not angry. I’m exuberant. It is cool but not cold. It’s early and the fall air feels new and fresh and good for me.

Dooley is waiting for me at the back gate. It’s a long walk down the service road, and the path is covered with leaves that have fallen from the trees that stretch like canopy over the path. Dooley is hungry for apples and grass and liberation. He will give a neigh and kick and run in a controlled run of his when I let him out.

I think all creatures must love fall. It is the best of times. The sun rises early now that we’ve set back the clocks, and even though it sets early, too, that feels right. Like it’s only natural that we would settle into our cozy homes, stews bubbling on the stove or a chicken roasting in the oven, and wait until it’s time to go to sleep.

Fall is also a time to prepare for the cold of winter. It’s a time to become more productive, less distracted by the never-ending light of summer. Yesterday I worked on my paintings for hours. I am finally becoming satisfied with Bush. He looks more real, red face and all, than he’d looked before. His eyes are scary, as you’d expect the eyes of someone like him to be. And his face has those plains to it that they have, a sharp face, pointy nose, pointy ears, straight lines for a mouth. He is an ugly man, as is Cheney and now Rove. Why is it that our lives get placed in the hands of such ugly men?

 

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Postscript: It is natural that parents want to guide our children, and usually in a more heavy-handed way than we might guide our friends or adult family members. When doing Writing Practice with your child, refrain from critiquing what she writes. Writing Practice is raw; it is not a final product. There is no good, no bad. It is what it is.

If you’d like to give your child feedback, use recall to do so. After she reads, recall a phrase or section of her writing, letting her know that those parts stood out to you. Try to do so without assigning value, such as, “I loved the part about …” If you can show your child how to provide input without labeling the input, you’ll also be role modeling how to listen deeply. It’s a wonderful skill to have.

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Continuity, BlackBerry Shots, pool near Clarks Hill Lake, Georgia, October 2009, all photos © 2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.






streaks of Southern light
splash across concrete pool deck
sink to the bottom


wading through memoir
old gravestones crack and crumble
worn secrets revealed


John Cheever lives on
fine art of the short story
distant memories


pool to pool to pool
we have all been The Swimmer
fighting for our lives






When I travel to Georgia with Mom, we stay at my Uncle Bill’s place on Clarks Hill Lake. Mom likes the wicker room on the first floor with a view of the lake and grounds. This year I stayed in the only upstairs bedroom in the wing of the house dedicated to recreation, exercise, and watching movies. In the past, I thought it a little strange to be the only person sleeping on the whole second floor. But this year, I grew to love the room. It’s quiet. No widescreen TV on the wall, no noise. And it looks out over a sea of Georgia pines on the shore of Clarks Hill Lake.

The dividing line between Georgia and South Carolina runs right through Clarks Hill Lake. I stay on the Georgia side with my uncle; my paternal aunts, Annette and Brenda, live not far from my uncle on the South Carolina side. I reconnected with my blood father’s sisters a few years ago after nearly 50 years. They had not seen me or my mother since I was 2 years old. Small world.

One morning I awoke and saw these streaks of light pulsing through the pool below me. It struck me how they hit the concrete first, then jumped into the water and immediately sank to the bottom. One thing I like about outdoor pools is the way the sunlight plays through the water during the day. Another thing about swimming — you get really good at holding your breath.

My grandfather had a pool when I was growing up. It wasn’t far from the bomb shelter he built outside his new home; it was the 1950’s. Among the things I remember clearly are the few sultry evenings when we swam at night. I also associate pools with John Cheever’s short story, The Swimmer. Ever since Natalie Goldberg had us read it for one of her Taos workshops, I’ve never forgotten it. Neither has writer Michael Chabon. In Salon, he calls The Swimmer “a masterpiece of mystery, language and sorrow.”

Who is your favorite short story writer? Have you ever written or published a short story? What do you associate with swimming pools? Exercise, relaxation, water polo, relief from the heat, family fun? Do a Writing Practice on Swimming Pools….10 Minutes, Go!


Lifeline, Lightbending (3), BlackBerry Shots
of pool near Clarks Hill Lake, Georgia, October
2009, all photos © 2009 by QuoinMonkey. All
rights reserved.


-posted on red Ravine, Saturday, November 14th, 2009, with gratitude to Natalie for all the writers she has introduced us to and made us read in spite of our resistance!

-related to posts: haiku 2 (one-a-day), PRACTICE — Holding My Breath – 10min, The Vitality Of Place — Preserving The Legacy Of “Home”

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Veins, Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, October 2009, all photos
© 2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

 
 

Day to day life creeps up on you. Practice falls by the wayside. Goals seem out of reach. Something inside makes you keep going.

Early October was my second time in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin to meet with three other Midwest writers in retreat. We arrived on Sunday, left on Wednesday, but we sure packed in the writing. I nearly filled an entire notebook. We try to meet every 6 months. The first night, we check in, slip sheets on the cabin beds, walk by Lake Michigan, get all the gossip and gabbing out of the way. The next day we dive in.

It’s cold this time of year. One person becomes the Firekeeper. The wood pile needs to be replenished. The fire keeps us warm. There is a need for leadership, someone to time the Writing Practices, lead the slow walking, provide structure for the silence — a Timekeeper. Most traditions have a Firekeeper and a Timekeeper. I am grateful for their effort.

Before the writing begins, we tear off pages of a lined yellow tablet, jot down Writing Topics, and throw them into a bowl. We take turns choosing a Topic and rotate who reads first. Some of the best Writing Practices surface from the strangest Writing Topics. My Other Self. Holy-Moley. The Broken Glass. After a few years of meeting, we have settled into a groove. I trust these writers.

One of the Writing Topics we drew out of the bowl was  “I Write Because…” When the retreat was over, I asked everyone if they would mind if I published the practices. For me, they harken back to the days when ybonesy and I first launched red Ravine (it grew out of our practice). And she has written with these writers, too. Bob and Teri have been frequent guests on red Ravine. Jude was one of our first guests, writing her piece 25 Reasons I Write from one of the cabins near the lake.

I want to share the structure of our writing retreats because anyone can form a writing group. Community is important. For the four of us, meeting together works because we live in fairly close proximity in the Midwest. We can make the drive in 8 to 10 hours if we want to. Last time, Teri, Jude, and I flew to Kansas City, Missouri. We’re thinking about meeting in Duluth, Minnesota on Lake Superior in 6 months.

I don’t want to make it sound easy. It takes a financial investment up front. And a continued commitment to check in with each other and plan the next meeting at least 3 months ahead. But the rewards are plentiful. Accountability. Support. People who believe in me when I forget how to believe in myself. Some days it feels like our hands are going to fall off from the writing. We crave the silence.

We laugh long and hard. Deep belly laughs. Sometimes we cry.  It feels good to laugh like that, to share meals together. Teri brings wild rice soup from Minnesota. Bob travels with a different kind of Kansas City barbecue each time we meet. Jude prepares her favorite dishes. I don’t like to cook. I volunteer to do the dishes.

The Timekeeper sent me a rundown of our schedule. It works pretty much the same way each time we meet. We follow what we learned from Natalie Goldberg about silence and structure and Writing Practice. Sit, walk, write. We do it because we don’t want to be tossed away. We do it because, for us, it works. It’s one way to write. It teaches discipline. It’s solid. It takes us where we need to go.

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 Writing Retreat Schedule

 
 

Wake up. Silence begins.
Meet for sit, walk, write at 9 a.m.
Sit for 20 minutes.
Walk for 5-10 minutes.
Write: four, 10-minute Writing Practices…one right after the other.
Read one practice, go around the group.
Repeat for the remaining three practices.
Break for 5-10 minutes. (Can break before reading, but usually break after reading)
Return to group.
Write two more practices.
Read them to each other.
About 11:30, break for lunch. Some prep required and we ate lunch in silence.
In silence and on our own until 3 p.m. when we return to the group.
Sit for 20 minutes.
Walk for 5-10 minutes.
Write: four, 10-minute writing practices.
Read each practice write to the group.
Break for dinner about 5:30 p.m.
Break silence.
Dinner at 6.
Talking about writing, life, etc.
Read writing projects we are working on.

 
 

Second Day

Repeat of the first day.

 
 

Third/Last Day

Meet for discussion of goals for next 6 months.
Sit for 10 minutes.
Then take 1/2 hour or 45 minutes to formulate writing/creative goals for the next 6 months.
Meet in group.
Each person discusses goals.
Group comments and person refines goals.

Each member of the group emails their goals to one person who puts them all together, sends them out for review, and then issues final email to group with all the goals listed.

Report to each other on 15th of the month and the last day of the month on our progress…a check-in.

 
 

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What I really want to say is I’m grateful for other writers. I admire and respect those who hone their craft, who dedicate time to their practice, who complete projects and get their work out there (no matter how long it takes).

 
 

For me, these self-propelled mini-retreats work because:

  • Follow the same Sit, Walk, Write structure each time. Consistent format.
  • Time to talk, laugh, share. Time for silence. Time alone for reflection. Time to stare into space.
  • No shame, no blame. We write our asses off, we read aloud. No crosstalk or feedback (except around goals).
  • Set 6 month goals, check in every two weeks. Learn that we all go through highs and lows; we all want to quit writing at times.
  • Clarity about money. Split the costs of lodging and groceries.
  • Short visits to museums, cafes, local color, either before or after retreat.
  • Practice feeds practice. Apply what is learned to other practices: photography, haiku, poetry, art.
  • What happens at the retreat, stays at the retreat.

 
Maybe Bob, Jude, and Teri will share more about why these mini-retreats work for them. I was reading through my notebook from early October. There were notes I had jotted in the margins from a conversation we had about what success as a writer means to each of us. What does success mean to you?

What would your writing retreat look like? Go for it. Choose a time. Hook up with other writers. Create a structure. Write. Don’t look for perfection. Let yourself slip up, make mistakes, stop writing for a while if you want to. But don’t be tossed away. Here are our unedited Writing Practices on why we write. Why do you write?

 
 

I Write Because…10 minutes. Go!

 
 
 

____________________

 
 
 

Teri Blair

 
 

I don’t know why I write anymore. That’s the problem. I used to write because I needed to. That was most of my life. Most of my life until I took a sabbatical six years ago. Until then, I found solace on the page; I straightened out my life with a pen and paper. Writing was one of my best friends…certainly a most faithful friend.

And then, I took the sabbatical and began this journey. This concentrate-on-writing-journey. It went well initially. I let myself write all those essays, I joined the Blue Mooners writing group, I studied with Natalie Goldberg, and I starting working with Scott. I sent my work out and even got some small paychecks from editors. But somewhere in there, during these six years, it changed. People started asking me if I had sold anything, asking me about writing all the time. I wanted them to ask me, and then I didn’t. I was losing something by involving everyone, and then it just turned into a pressure. I was writing to have an answer to their questions. Or to feel special. When this was dawning on me, I went to hear Mary Oliver at the State Theater. She told the writers in the audience to write a long, long time before they tried to publish. I knew she was right. I knew I had to go back inside myself if I was going to save this thing that I had once loved and needed and felt close to.

The trip out of the pressure has been much more difficult than the joy-ride in. And now, all I want to do is write, but nothing comes. The voice inside prods: Why do you want to write? Are you going to try to get your life needs met through me? If I come back, will you go down the same old path?

I’m not yet solid in my convictions, though very close.

 
 

____________________

 
 
 

Jude Ford

 
 
I write because…there are as many reasons to do it as there are reasons not to. At this point, after all these years of honing my writing skills, it would feel like a waste – and a loss – to not do it.

I write because I love to read. Reading triggers my mind to come up with my own ways of arranging words. Reading reminds me of what I want/need to say.

I write because I didn’t feel listened to as a kid. Yeah, yeah, I probably talked so much back then that no one ever could listen to me enough to make me feel heard. My father used to like to say I’d been vaccinated with a phonograph needle in infancy. (I just realized what a dated image that is. Who ever associates a needle with sound in 2009?!)

I don’t feel well listened to even now, I guess. I got into the habit, as I was growing up, of speaking less and less and by the time I turned 21, I’d perfected the art of being agreeable rather than speaking up about who I was or what I thought. I didn’t even know, myself, who I was or what I thought half the time.

But I wrote. Starting when I was 19 and left home for good, I wrote all the time. My journals from my 20’s are full of depression and melodrama, poems that sound as young as I was. When I read them now, they make me cringe.

And yet – I remember what those journals were to me at the time, my one lifeline, my safest place, the only place in my life where I brought all of my true self.

I write still so that I can find out who I am and what I think. There are other lifelines now – Chris, my friends, my work – where I also bring my true self but writing remains one of my mainstays.

 
 

____________________

 
 
 

Bob Chrisman

 
 
I write because something inside me wants to tell my stories, put them outside myself and free up the space they take inside me, free up that energy I use to keep the unpleasant ones out of my consciousness. I write because I want to make sense of a non-sensical life, the one I live. Sometimes the connections don’t become obvious until I see them laid out on paper in front of me.

I write to tell my story so that anyone out there who is or has experienced some of the things I have will know they aren’t alone, will know that I survived what they are going through. I write to connect with other people because when I do I feel successful as a human being.

I write because I must. Writing makes me feel free once I’m finished. Starting a piece may prove difficult. I may even avoid writing for days or weeks, but once I begin and finish a difficult piece I feel freer.

I write because writing has introduced me to some of the most wonderful people in the world, people who give me hope that we may deal with our problems and change the world, save us from ourselves.

I write because I must tell my truth to the world, as much as I feel safe telling.

I write because it feels good to see the words appear on the paper as the pen glides across the page. Sometimes surprises happen. Things appear that I didn’t consciously mean to say. Misspelled words give new meaning to what I said, new truth.

I write because writing gives me control over my life.

 
 

____________________

 
 
 

QuoinMonkey

 
 

I write because I love to write. I love writers. I write because it’s a place that is still. I let myself dive into the black. I am honest with myself. Things never seem to be as bad as I think they are when I write.

I write to make sense out of my life. My mother’s life. My grandmother’s life. My crazy family. I write with a community of writers because I know I’m not alone. Because they help me hold the space. Because they are not afraid of what they might find in the silence.

I write to learn about things I would never research if it were not for writing. I write to learn. I write to quell the hunger. I write to still my insatiable curiosity.

I write to help me confront my own death. I write to find my voice, to tap into my inner courage. I write to not feel so alone. Yet writing is lonely. And when I write I am often alone. I write to connect with what is important to me. To connect with others. I write. I write. I write.

I have always written. But writing with wild abandon is something I’ve had to relearn as an adult.

I write to push myself outside of the lines. Because I care about the writers who came before me. I write to teach others how to write. Don’t do as I say; do as I do.

Writing practice frees me. But it’s not a finished piece. It may never be a finished piece. Yet it might.

Writing Practice takes me where I need to go. Teaches me Faith. Patience. Courage. Risktaking. That it’s okay to cry. Conflict resolution. What I care about. What I could care less about.

I don’t have to love everyone or everything. Writing is structure. It teaches me how to live.

 

-posted on red Ravine, Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009

-related to Topic: WRITING TOPIC — 25 REASONS I WRITE

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Moon over Kitchen Mesa, the moon at dusk at Ghost Ranch, August 1, 2009, photo © 2009 by ybonesy, all rights reserved
Moon over Kitchen Mesa, moon at dusk at Ghost Ranch, August 1, 2009, photo © 2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.










silent Moon hovers
dreaming of New Mexico
she sits for us all




off in the zendo
friends dancing in the middle
slow walk to the end




irrational mind
each day a new beginning
Summer wears your face









__________________________________________________________________________________

In honor of our friends sitting in Taos with Natalie this week and last; photo by ybonesy and haiku by QuoinMonkey.

__________________________________________________________________________________

-related to too many posts to mention them all, but here are few: Birthday Of Mabel Dodge Luhan, Sunrise On Taos Mountain (Reflections On Writing Retreats), Sitting in Solidarity, A Taste Of Ghost Ranch, and haiku 2 (one-a-day).

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Coffee (Get Your  Motor Runnin), Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Coffee (Get Your Motor Runnin’), outside Diamonds Coffee Shoppe, a great place to write, Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

 
 

It’s a rainy morning and I’m slowly waking up. It’s been a strange week. Many irons in the fire, not enough focus, distracted. I have felt like a Duncan yo-yo spinning and “sleeping” at the end of its string. Since most yo-yo tricks are based on learning to “sleep,” it’s important to master the art of spinning. What was it going to take to snap back to the wrist and safely into the palm? Back to basics: practice, structure, community.

Amid continued job hunting, gardening and yard work with Liz, meetings with ybonesy around red Ravine, I’m researching and doing the ground work for a new mandala on canvas, progress on a series that’s been in my head for a while. And after Art-a-Whirl, I was reenergized for the writers’ photo series I’m working on. But I also have a commitment to honor from the last Kansas City writing retreat, a goal to focus on writing memoir essays for print submission — half day, 3x a week, mornings.

Where do I spend my time? It’s a matter of prioritizing the structure of each day. And staying grounded. Do other writers and artists struggle in this way? Is it a block or simply fear. Is there too much on the plate? Or do I just need to settle down and get back on track.

I carry creative projects in the belly a long time. Then they spew out all at once and nearly whole. It is the way I have always worked. I hold my work close to the vest, only talking to a few trusted people. It often takes a deadline to push me to completion. This is good to know.

Another thing that grounds me is looking to writers and artists who have gone before; their sage advice is hard earned and welcome. Recently, I perused paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe, the infrared photographs of Minor White, and a book of Judy Chicago’s stunning clay work in The Dinner Party. I’m inspired by the work of others; it wakes me up.

 
 

Grounding, Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.Grounding, Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.Grounding, Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.Grounding, Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

 
 

I also pulled Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft off the shelf. I read it years ago, before I called myself a writer. It’s on my list of classic books on writing — books I go back to when I need to feel that it’s okay to be struggling. I’ve always been fond of the way he dealt with rejection slips early in his career. I have never forgotten it:

 

I had a desk beneath the room’s other eave, my old Royal typewriter, and a hundred or so paperback books, mostly science fiction, which I lined up along the baseboard. On my bureau was a Bible won for memorizing verses in Methodist Youth Fellowship and a Webcor phonograph with an automatic changer and a turntable covered in soft green velvet. On it I played my records, mostly 45s by Elvis, Chuck Berry, Freddy Cannon, and Fats Domino. I liked Fats; he knew how to rock, and you could tell he was having fun.

When I got the rejection slip from AHMM, I pounded a nail into the wall above the Webcor, wrote “Happy Stamps” on the rejection slip, and poked it onto a nail. Then I sat on my bed and listened to Fats sing “I’m Ready.” I felt pretty good, actually. When you’re still too young to shave, optimism is a perfectly legitimate response to failure.

By the time I was fourteen (and shaving twice a week whether I needed to or not) the nail on my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.

  -from On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King, Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, ©2000

 
His perseverance, what Natalie teaches as Continue Under All Circumstances, Don’t Be Tossed Away, has always stuck with me. Do you have books you turn to when you feel ungrounded or like your head is going to fly off the top of your spine? If you do, pull them off the shelf again when you get stuck. They will turn you around.

Below are a few tips plucked from paragraphs in On Writing. They were easy to find; they jumped out from the page in fluorescent yellow, the highlighter I used 9 years ago. Ah…..I feel better already.

 
 

10 Tips On Writing From Stephen King

     

  1. If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut….Every book has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.
  2.  

  3. There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level…there’s stuff in there that will change your life.
  4.  

  5. Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex, and work. Especially work. People love to read about work. God knows why, but they do….What you need to remember is that there’s a difference between lecturing about what you know and using it to enrich the story. The latter is good. The former is not.
  6.  

  7. Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story. Good description is a learned skill, one of the prime reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot…You can only learn by doing. For me, good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else. In most cases, these details will be the first ones that come to mind.
  8.  

  9. I would argue that the paragraph, not the sentence is the basic unit of writing—the place where coherence begins and words stand a chance of becoming more than mere words. If the moment of quickening is to come, it comes at the level of the paragraph. It is a marvelous and flexible instrument that can be a single word long or run on for pages…You must learn to use it well if you are to write well. What this means is lots of practice; you have to learn the beat.
  10.  

  11. Writing is seduction. Good talk is part of seduction. If not so, why do so many couples who start the evening at dinner wind up in bed?
  12.  

  13. A series of grammatically proper sentences can stiffen that line, make it less pliable. Purists hate to hear that and will deny it to their dying breath, but it’s true. Language does not always have to wear a tie and lace-up shoes…
  14.  

  15. I predict you will succeed swimmingly…if, that is, you are honest about how your characters speak and behave. Honesty in storytelling makes up for a great many stylistic faults…but lying is the unrepairable fault.
  16.  

  17. Before beginning to write, I’ll take a moment to call up an image of the place, drawing from my memory and filling in my mind’s eye, an eye whose vision grows sharper the more it is used. I call it a mental eye because that’s the phrase with which we’re all familiar but what I actually want to do is open all my senses.
  18.  

  19. As with all other aspects of narrative art, you will improve with practice, but practice will never make you perfect. Why should it? What fun would that be? And the harder you try to be clear and simple, the more you will learn about the complexity of our American dialect. It be slippery, precious; aye, it be very slippery indeed. Practice the art, always reminding yourself that your job is to say what you see, and then to get on with your story.

 
 

Grounding, Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.Grounding, Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.Grounding, Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.Grounding, Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Grounding, vintage lamp inside the vault at Diamonds Coffee Shoppe, Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 2008, all photos © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

 
 

Post Script — On Spinning: I wrote this a week ago Sunday and have since gotten back on track with my projects. It’s good to have resources to turn to when I feel like I’m spinning. And to believe that the tide will turn, even when I am rejecting my own process. Writing is the art of rebellion — then snapping back into place. Replace the nail with a spike, and keep on writing. One day at a time; it’s not a race. Eventually, my work will be finished.

 
Footnote — A Little About Yo-yos:  One more historical tidbit I stumbled upon while adding the links on this post. Yo-yos and Slinkys (listen to the Slinky song here!) were popular toys when I was growing up. Did you know that the slip string that lets the yo-yo “sleep” at the bottom was a Filipino innovation? And that “Reach for the Moon,” “Loop the Loop,” and many more tricks in the familiar repertoire of yo-yo virtuosos were created by a group of professional demonstrators, mostly Filipino, hired by the Duncan Yo-Yo Company during the U.S. Great Depression?

The Duncan Yo-Yo Company started in 1929 when entrepreneur Donald F. Duncan Sr. purchased the Flores Yo-Yo Company from Filipino immigrant Pedro Flores. Check out the film of 77-year-old Nemo Concepcion, one of the first yo-yo demonstrators and originator of many yo-yo tricks. The film Yoyo Man was made in 1978 by filmmaker John Melville Bishop. Here’s a link to the film guide for Yoyo Man from Documentary Educational Resources.

 
 
-posted on red Ravine, Monday, June 15th, 2009

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Photo by: Justine Ungaro

Lisa Loeb, Photo by: Justine Ungaro

 

On Wednesday, February 11, QuoinMonkey and ybonesy interviewed singer-songwriter Lisa Loeb. It was shortly after the end of her whirlwind tour of the U.S. and Japan following the June 2008 release of her second CD of Children’s Music, Camp Lisa

The CD follows Loeb’s early 2008 reissue of The Purple Tape, an acoustic, ten-song demo she self-released as a cassette in 1992. Proceeds from “Camp Lisa” benefit a foundation Lisa created to send underprivileged children to summer camp.

The New York Times had recently announced Lisa’s January 2009 wedding at Brasserie 8 ½, a restaurant in New York, when QM and ybonesy spoke with her from her New York City home. They talked about marriage and culinary loves, Loeb’s life as a singer-songwriter, practices that sustain her, the work of writing, and tips for those who dream of making it big.

 

                                             *     *     *     *

 

Interview with Lisa Loeb, February 11, 2009, red Ravine

 

red Ravine: In our research to prepare for this interview, we couldn’t help but notice that you seem to love food. Some of your children’s songs are about food, like the “Peanut Butter & Jelly” song from Camp Lisa (which is one of our faves) plus you’ve done the Food Network. Also in the New York Times article about your marriage, we were struck by how acute your senses are when you describe food. Is food a passion of yours?

 

Lisa Loeb: Yes, it’s a thing that I love. Growing up, like a lot of other girls, I was concerned about my weight. I was a dancer, and I loved food. We had to eat in the cafeteria every day at school, and it was sort of a game to find out what they were serving for lunch. But by the time I was a teenager, I went to an all-girls school, and since we wore uniforms, we were especially aware of our bodies and the differences between our bodies. Uniforms are meant to make us seem more uniform, but when everyone’s wearing the same thing, you pay more attention to other bodies. You would notice that you were eating the delicious cornbread muffins or the huge pieces of pie or the doughnuts in between classes in the morning, and it was a struggle between enjoying all this food versus getting larger and larger.

Between my sophomore and junior years, I went to Spain to live there with a family. Every day a younger brother in the Spanish family would run and get me a huge pastry because he realized that I liked it. And at night, we’d eat hotdogs and go out drinking all the time and eat potato chips and all these great Spanish tapas before they were fashionable in the United States. I came home a lot heavier. And it was scary.

It was fun to eat all that stuff but it was not that fun to come home heavier. So then I tried all the different diets that everybody tries. By the time I got to college, I started getting interested in nutrition to figure out how to enjoy food but eat in a balanced way. My best nutritionists were the people who said, “Eat whatever you want when you are hungry, but stop when you’re full. And pay attention to nutrition when you can.”

 

red Ravine: I (QuoinMonkey) met you a few years ago in a writing workshop with author Natalie Goldberg. It was one of Natalie’s weeklong silent retreats where we sat and meditated and slow walked and did Writing Practice. What prompted you, a successful singer and songwriter, to take a writing workshop and what did you learn from the silent writing retreat?

 

Lisa: I’ve always been a fan of Natalie Goldberg. Her writing exercises and general attitude about writing have helped me in my process of writing. At my all-girls school, although they taught me a lot about writing — how to write correctly and how to communicate, read, and pick apart text in English and Spanish — they didn’t always emphasize our own thoughts and having our own opinions. Especially as we got older, they didn’t put as much value on personal opinion as they did on structure, format, and grammar.

With Natalie, she emphasizes just writing. You know, just writing for yourself. That’s something that I think is important as an artist because as humans, all we have different from each other is our point of view, and so it’s important as an artist to bring that out. That’s what she does.

I thought if I could take a workshop with her, that would be amazing. Also, in my life often there’s more time spent on the business side of things than on the writing side of things, and for me structure is very helpful. So to be in a place where the goal was to write for a week was something that I looked forward to.

I’d done something like that for music, where I went to music summer school a long time ago, before I was a professional musician, at Berkeley Music School. And I got to practice. Even when I was a kid, I was pretty distracted; I practiced some but I did a lot of other things in my life. And for once, I wanted to be that person who just got in the practice room and practiced, practiced, practiced.

This was like that for writing, in a silent retreat especially, because I’m around a lot of people all the time, touring in every state, always communicating with people. It was a great opportunity to simplify and be silent. I do spend time alone, not talking to people, when I’m not working. But that was an opportunity to focus, of course, with the great guidance of Natalie and also in the company of people — people at all different levels of writing. I learn a lot from just starting from the beginning. Natalie calls it “Beginner’s Mind.” And sometimes when you are writing with people who are beginners, you remember to take the pressure off of writing, which adds more freedom for better writing and more writing.

 

red Ravine: Most of us who aspire to integrate Writing Practice into our lives struggle at different times to make it a day-to-day practice. How about you? Do you write or play music every day?

 

Lisa: I don’t. Not at all. I’ve gone through phases where I do write — I use things like a month-long tour or a trip to the beach for a week-and-a-half, or there’s a thing in the Jewish tradition called Counting the Omer. When structures like that come up, I’ll take advantage of them and say, “Okay, now I’m going to write every day for this period of time.” Or there’s a Toni Morrison book where it’s day-by-day, a short-chaptered book where she talks about different things in each chapter (maybe it’s called Love). So I decided I was going to do a page-long chapter each day and write something based on a word that she mentioned in her book.

Sometimes I have to create a little game to create structure for myself. Other times, when I know I need to finish, I start. It’s almost like an athlete warming up and getting ready to do a marathon. I just realize I can’t do it overnight, it’s a process.

But yeah, it’s hard. I don’t always write every day. Sometimes when I write every day it gets too easy in a way. Like I am not saying anything and I’m not focusing well. So sometimes I need to take a break from it, too.

 

red Ravine: Do you have other practices that ground you and sustain you?

 

Lisa: I do. I work out five days a week at least, walking whether it’s on a treadmill or outside, doing strength training. Some people do yoga; I do strength training. And then also when I’m in Los Angeles, I go to synagogue on Saturday ’cause I have a cool rabbi that I like.

 

red Ravine: And any other things you do to keep going when you’re feeling down or insecure?

 

Lisa: I have my friends. That’s important to me, spending time with friends. And going outside and taking a walk. Or writing. You know, writing is something I definitely rely on for that. It’s a little weird, too, because I associate writing with my professional life so sometimes I have to remember to step back and write to write, even if it means being like Jack Nicholson in the movie The Shining and writing the same thing over and over.

I do use writing as a tool. It helps that little switch in my brain which I try to avoid or at least let it pass, which is like, Oooh, I wonder if I could do a different song. Or, I wonder if I could do something else where I write. It’s the equivalent of when you’re working out or taking a walk because you want to and it feels good, then getting that little thought in the back of your head, saying, Oooh, I wonder if I’m going to lose any weight by doing this or walk off that piece of pie from last night.

I don’t like associating working out and losing weight. I like associating working out with breathing. It’s the same thing I have with writing – in order for it to actually work properly and be integrated into my life in a balanced way, it has to be what it is.

 

red Ravine: You came into success very early in your career as a musical artist. How did that affect your life and your creative work?

 

Lisa: It gave me a lot of freedom to have success early on. The financial freedom — in my family growing up, having a job was something that we valued, being able to support yourself. So that took a load off my mind. And it gave me freedom to have less worry. I worry a lot in my life. You know, the Jewish worry and guilt, a certain amount of being neurotic.

It gave me freedom, although in the end, I think other people can’t make you feel like you are successful. It comes with a certain amount of self-confidence and self-esteem. But I think that having other people acknowledge what I’m doing gave me more confidence and made me feel like I was more free to continue to make music. Which is very powerful. Because not knowing if what you’re doing is worth anything can be very frustrating.

And I know that even after being a professional musician, that feeling never goes away. That feeling’s always there. Like, Oh gosh, I wonder if this is worth anything, why am I doing this, it’s a selfish thing, I should do something where I help other people… All these things. I love hearing from somebody saying, “That thing that you wrote helped me through this period of my life.” It’s a weird balance of feeling secure within myself, but also as a performer and a writer having that respect from an audience.

 

Also, I want to go back to one other question you asked me [regarding] when you’re in a state of depression or insecurity. I got a lot of great tools from my rabbi in Los Angeles. He’s of a Hasidic philosophy similar to cognitive therapy, where you’re able to look at your actions and thoughts in a different light and turn things around.

He mentioned a time where he was giving a lecture in front of people — he gives a lot of lectures and teaches classes — and he thought, Everyone is so bored, they don’t want to listen to me, I’m doing a terrible job. I think someone might have yawned in the front row. And then he thought through it again using the cognitive therapy and Hasidic philosophy and said, Well, people like coming to my classes so I must be doing something right. The classes I give, even when they’re bad are usually pretty good, and so I guess I’m doing a pretty good job. That’s a simplification, but he’s saying that [we all have access to] those kind of tools.

I want to feel good with when I just sit at the subway station for two minutes waiting for the train and write something there. It doesn’t have to be a magical place, but I have to sit down and write. It can be anywhere. It can be on a napkin in a restaurant. It doesn’t have to lead to a great song. That’s not the best example, but thinking through things in a realistic way helps ground me as well.

 

red Ravine: It sounds like a practical tool for dealing with Monkey Mind.

 

Lisa: Oh, it is. It really is. It’s that Natalie Goldberg thing I learned, we all learned, that you just sit down and write. Things don’t happen overnight. Sometimes they do, but you can’t rely on that. You can rely on just sitting and writing as part of a bunch of small steps that take you some place — maybe, maybe not.

 

red Ravine: We were talking about your success that came early on and we’re curious, too, how your goals have changed. Have your goals as an artist changed as you’ve gotten older?

 

Lisa: I think my goals continue to be pretty much the same since I was younger – which is to continue to try to write better. And also to try to enjoy the process more.

I’ve written songs since I was a kid but especially when I started writing lyrics when I was 13, 14, it’s become more complicated. And it’s always been a hard process. I continue to become more forgiving of myself and more accepting of the process. What it is for me doesn’t have to be what it is for other people.

I want to be a better songwriter. I guess I might have had more business-oriented goals when I was starting out, to get a record contract, to get paid to do things, and I guess I still have those goals. It’s great if you can get paid for your work, which is rarer these days, especially with people trading music.

Also there are meta-goals. One of them is to continue to keep my eyes open for other things I want to do that aren’t writing, that aren’t making songs. And that’s okay to do other things well.

But as a writer, you need to be comfortable with the process. And just keep doing it. It’s hard. I told Natalie…I ate lunch with her one day on the way through New Mexico and I was telling her, “There are these projects I want to develop, and maybe I want to be a psychologist or a nutritionist, and maybe I should teach, but I have these songs I’m supposed to write but I don’t want to, so I think I’m just going to hang out.” 

And she said, “You just need to sit that…I don’t know how better to say it…you just need to sit that motherfucker down and write.” (laughter from all). She’s like, “People say that all the time, ‘I never want to write, I don’t want to do it…’.” And I was like, Ahhhh…go do your homework! I hate doing my homework, I don’t want to do it. And the thing is, if you do it little by little, it’ll get done.

 

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Lisa Loeb 2008 Release, "Camp Lisa", Illustration by: Esme Shapiro, 15, a student at LA County High School for the Arts and summer camp fan.    Lisa Loeb 2008 2-CD Reissue "The Purple Tape"   Lisa Loeb 2008 Release, "Camp Lisa", Illustration by: Esme Shapiro, 15, a student at LA County High School for the Arts and summer camp fan.

 

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red Ravine: You were in Albuquerque last year and my (ybonesy’s) date to your concert was my nine-year-old daughter, which turned out to be great. Afterwards we bought the CD Catch the Moon and my daughter listens to it all the time; in fact, it’s sitting on the kitchen table for her to load on to her iPod along with your hits. You’ve gotten into children’s music and you found a generous way to pay it forward with the proceeds from Camp Lisa and sending kids to camp through your Camp Lisa Foundation. What inspired you to write and sing music for children?

 

Lisa: It was something I wanted to do ever since I was a kid. I listened to music for children. In my day it was Free To Be You and Me; it was Really Rosy, which was a Carole King record. A lot of music they had on Sesame Street and The Electric Company, created by real musicians of the time — the early 70’s — sounded like real music.

I had an opportunity to do a record that was different from my regular grown-up records and I chose to do a kids’ record. My friend Liz Mitchell produced it. Since she’d made a lot of kids’ records, it sounded in the vein I wanted. Actually, she was the one who gave me my first Natalie Goldberg book. She was my singing partner in my band for years and years.

When it came time for me to do another kids’ record, I was going through a moment where I was like, What am I doing? I was trying to write a regular grown-up album and I was writing dark things and spending a lot of time by myself writing. It wasn’t fun. And I remembered that it had been really fun writing songs with friends of mine in Los Angeles, and I thought, Why does it have to be a treacherous horrible experience? I should take a break and do something that reminds me that it’s fun and easy to write songs and express ourselves.

So I got back together with my friends Dan [Petty] and Michelle Lewis, who lived down the street basically, and we started making a summer camp record and it was really fun! And it felt like, wow, I’m a working songwriter, I go to work with them each day and we write songs. And we make up melodies and it’s very exciting and fun; it doesn’t have to be a painful experience to be artistic.

Through that process, I was questioning, Why am I doing music at all? I want to try to do something else to help other people. Then I realized, Oh, wait a minute, maybe I can use what we’re doing to help other people. And I realized that summer camp, of course, [we] could actually send kids to summer camp and also to be able to meet the kids. It all came together — a goal for having a kids’ record; a goal to be more responsible in the community; and a songwriter wanting to engage in a more fun way that would inform my regular, grown-up songwriting.

Also, writing kids’ songs, you have more of a story where you’re trying to say something that people can understand easily, and I think that’s a good tool for me to bring to my grown-up writing. Also when I play kids’ concerts, I realize that some of the more simple songs where I’m writing a tra-la-la-la-la or a chant or repetitive part is a fun thing to play in front of people. Grown ups and kids enjoy it and it makes me realize that sometimes in songwriting it’s not how many words can you put in there, how clever you can be, it’s really just going from your heart, the melodies and the words that just come out. Which is hard to trust. You feel you need to write the most complicated music, but that’s not what songwriting is about.

 

red Ravine: Who are your favorite songwriters today? What songs do you like to hear?

 

Lisa: I have a lot of songs I love; they don’t even focus on the lyrics that much, just the feelings of the songs. I love Led Zeppelin, especially Led Zeppelin IV and the Over the Hills and Far Away album. I love David Bowie music and often I don’t know what he’s talking about but (laughter) there’s just a certain attitude and coolness in his songs. Songwriters? More recently I’ve enjoyed Death Cab for Cutie. Oh gosh there’s so much music that I love. Lyle Lovett is great. Prince. 

A lot of things are abstract and it’s just the way it feels, the music and the lyrics and the feeling of it altogether hits me. It’s funny because it’s not how I feel when I’m writing music. It reminds me that it’s okay to play around with words and feelings and if it means something to me that’s fine; it doesn’t have to be so direct. It’s a constant balance, like I said with the kids’ music, where you’re trying to say something more directly, and the kind of music which I enjoy listening to, which often is more abstract and about the feeling and the production of the songs.

 

red Ravine: When you were in Albuquerque you mentioned that you were attending a Goldberg writing retreat with your mother. What was it like to do Writing Practice with your mom?

 

Lisa: We didn’t actually do a lot of practice together. It was a little frustrating.

What I loved was that my mother hasn’t done a lot of things where she goes away and meets other people. She loves people and talking to people and meeting people, and I thought that social aspect would be interesting for her. Because on my first writing weekend with Natalie, it was a speaking retreat where you got to actually sit at breakfast and talk to people.

And I thought secretly she would get to do some writing. She also went to the same high school I went to and grew up in a time when grammar was much more important than the fact that maybe saying something that’s not grammatically correct might allow you to express yourself better. So I wanted her to experience it for herself. I think that was the first time she was encouraged in that way. It was cool to see her go through that and go home and tell her friends about it.

But we actually didn’t do as much Writing Practice together as I expected. And that was actually a lesson to me, too. If I’m not working, if I’m not writing, I always feel like I’m never writing enough. No matter what it is, it’s just not enough. And I sort of beat myself up over it. I was trying to let myself not have to be a person who has to be writing all the time. And let that be okay. And that was really hard, but that was an interesting turn the other direction.

 

red Ravine: We noticed you studied comparative literature at Brown and we’re curious, how did (does) that play into your songwriting?

 

Lisa: It doesn’t very much at all. When I went to Brown, I picked something that was close to what I thought I liked when I was in high school. One of my favorite classes was Spanish because not only did we get to learn a whole different language and communicate with a whole new group of people, but in Spanish class, we also got to study visual art, film, poetry, geography, food, social customs. You name it, we studied it, but in Spanish.

We learned to take apart poems, and there was great Spanish-language literature, which is some of the best literature in the world. High school, middle, and elementary school education actually played more into my writing than my college experience.

Really college was just what I studied on paper, and in retrospect, I would go back and do something else. But it gave me the freedom to spend most of my time in the recording studio, in the music department and the theater department doing plays, writing music, playing shows. It gave me this kind of thing I could tell my parents I was doing that sounded reasonable while I was actually spending most of my time doing these other things.

It was also like a long lesson in learning that I really need to go with my heart and not do what I’m supposed to be doing. In retrospect, I should have been studying theater or art or music or psychology or just something else. I mean, I don’t think reading Ulysses three times really did anything (which was a painful experience). Experimental things can be boring or they can be interesting. It didn’t take me any further into literature; it was more about theory, but it didn’t inform my writing.

 

red Ravine: What are some of your favorite authors and books?

 

Lisa: I love Isabel Allende, pretty much all her books. I love magical realism. You know where she tells a story that feels like it’s actually happening but within it, just like Gabriel García Márquez, they use these great images and things happening that are magical and you get the feeling that those things could actually be someone’s real experience, even though it might include flying or crazy dreams or people floating through rooms or water pouring out of walls, or whatever it is.

I love the short stories of Roald Dahl. The collection I love the most is Kiss Kiss. And that’s kind of Twilight Zoney using tales that are very bizarre but you can imagine them actually happening. I love J. D. Salinger all the way around. Again, I love his short stories. He takes things that are very mundane and very deep and there’s this beauty and melancholy in the books that I love. Those are some of my favorite authors.

 

red Ravine: What projects are you working on now?

 

Lisa: None writing wise. I’m working on developing an eyewear line that will be out later this year. I’m very involved in the design, involved in the marketing, that side of the company, so that will be out later in the year. I’m also working on a collection of more kids songs for a couple of kids books that should be out in 2010, which will be more like lyrics for singalong songs, some crafts and some recipes. It will be fun for kids.

And I’m trying to finish up some songs for a grown-up record. After my wedding, I returned to listening to some of the songs I was in the process of finishing and I’m actually realizing that I’m closer to finishing an album than I thought I was. Little by little, you know.

 

red Ravine: Wow, eyewear? Because every time we see a photo of you we always just think your glasses are fabulous. How did that come about?

 

Lisa: Thank you. Well, I’ve always worn glasses and ever since I was in high school people would recognize me for my glasses. And I love glasses, especially ones that have a little bit of a lift on the corners — some people say cat-eyes, but they’re not quite cat-eye glasses. Anyway, I love them and I was looking for a perfect pair and people have always asked where they could get my glasses. Finally, we were able to connect with a company that wants to manufacture them and work with us to put them out. Selfishly, I’ll pick up a couple of pair of glasses that I really like!

No matter where I am, I always look for glasses, and it’s hard to find them. You know when you wear them on your face every day? So I wanted selfishly to have my own but I also wanted to share my glasses with other people who are always asking about them.

 

red Ravine: I (ybonesy) will look for them because I always want a lift at the corner, too. Some faces just need that. Do you have any plans to take any other kinds of workshops or attend another Natalie Goldberg retreat?

 

Lisa: I would love to do that. I meant to do it for my 40th birthday but we couldn’t quite get it together and Natalie’s mother passed away kind of close to it. I was thinking, in lieu of a bachelorette party for my wedding, it would be great to put together a workshop of my friends, a writing workshop with people I get together and write with anyway.

Right now my schedule’s a little tight because I’m moving back to Los Angeles and there are non-business priorities that [make it] hard to take even three or four days and go write. For me, and I know for a lot of other people, that structure makes all the difference in the world. And sometimes it takes going away to a seminar to remember that. Even though you can just sit and put your timer on for 10 minutes on your cell phone and write, sometimes it takes a weekend trip to remember that.

Also, something I forget –you’re supposed to read this stuff to other people. You don’t have to write all day for this to work. Natalie always says you need to write less. You need to sit down and write, but you don’t need to write five hours a day, that’s too much, you can’t do it. So I think it’s a great environment for me and I know it impacts a lot of other people as well.

 

red Ravine: You just got married a few weeks ago, so we wanted to know how is married life treating you, and what is a fluffernutter? (laughs)

 

Lisa: (laughs) A fluffernutter is marshmallow crème and I think we got it on white bread. Often we all go back to wheat bread, but for purposes of the fluffernutter sandwich, it was this homemade white bread with peanut butter and with marshmallow fluff. I can’t believe how good it is; it’s a crazy thing. And the texture when you bite into the sandwich, you know it creates that seam when you bite into that white bread sandwich. And it’s just like a pillow of joy (all laugh). It’s sweet and salty and fluffy packed in between these two cottony sheets. It’s delicious! 

And married life is good, it’s really great. We’re at the beginning of this adventure. I love my husband and I look forward to continuing to get to know him and we just have a really good time together, no matter what. We’re a good support system for each other. We both have the same values. He’s not a musician professionally, but he likes to play music in the house, and again that reminds me that creatively, it doesn’t have to be for work.

Sometimes when you just do things for fun, it might lead to something you can use for work. For me, that’s an important reminder not to always be geared toward work. We have a good time and music is part of his work so we both have a lot of opportunities to do music and talk about it and do fun things and meet interesting people. And it’s good to have a team; though you were a team before, it’s a different team when you’re married. So yeah, it’s all good.

 

red Ravine: I’m going to try to get both these questions in, one has to do with the fact that you were recently on stage with Sarah Silverman who strikes us as someone who takes so many risks with her art. And you’ve ventured into many different creative areas with songwriting, TV, and voiceover work. What was it like to work with Sarah and how important is risk-taking in creative work?

 

Lisa: It was great to work with her. I think she’s clever and fun and she’s really nice. And I feel like risk-taking is important but again, that’s relative. For some people it might mean writing a song from the first person instead of third person. Or it might mean setting a guitar on fire on stage. Or not writing might be risk-taking. Like I said, it was scary for me to be in a writing seminar and not be writing a whole lot. But to not be following the rules is a huge risk for me; I always follow the rules.

 

red Ravine: Our last question: What advice do you have for our readers who dream of making it big with their writing and becoming well-known?

 

Lisa: Two things. One is continue to write and to do your own thing. Don’t try to copy other people; the main thing you have to offer that is different from other people is yourself and your own point of view. But, at the same time, to make it you need to be a business person or find a person who can help you with the business side of things. That might mean doing it yourself, getting copies of your book out there, reading it live, being a musician live, or doing something on YouTube. Because part of it is doing the work, and then part of it is getting it out there with an audience.

But first, decide what your goals are. If it’s to be famous, hire a publicist and do some whacky things and get famous. If it’s to be read by a lot of people, start somewhere. Do it yourself. But don’t wait around for someone to do it for you. It’s not going to happen miraculously.

 

red Ravine: Thank you Lisa, really wonderful interview. We appreciate your time, and we’ll be watching for those eyeglasses!

 

Lisa: Thank you. I appreciate the questions.

 

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Lisa Loeb, Photo by: Andrew Eccles

Lisa Loeb, Photo by: Andrew Eccles

About Lisa Loeb:  Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Lisa Loeb started her career with the platinum selling No. 1 hit song “Stay (I Missed You)” from the film Reality Bites. To this day, she is still the only artist to have a No. 1 single while not signed to a recording contract. Loeb parlayed that early success into a multi-dimensional career encompassing music, film, television, voice-over work, and children’s recordings.

Her six acclaimed studio CDs include the Gold-selling Tails and its follow-up, the Grammy-nominated, Gold-selling Firecracker. Her complete catalogue includes The Very Best of Lisa Loeb (2006), and two children’s CDs, the award-winning Catch the Moon (2006) and Camp Lisa (2008) with guests Jill Sobule, Lee Sklar, Maia Sharp and funnyman/banjo player Steve Martin. In conjunction with the release of the Camp Lisa CD, Loeb launched the Camp Lisa Foundation, a non-profit organization that raises funds to help send underprivileged kids to summer camp through its partnership with S.C.O.P.E. (Summer Camp Opportunities Provide an Edge, Inc.).

In addition to her music, Lisa has also starred in two television series, Dweezil and Lisa, a weekly culinary adventure for the Food Network, and #1 Single, a dating show on E! Network. Look for the Lisa Loeb eyewear line to hit the stores in 2009.

 

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Sunrise On Taos Mountain, Taos, New Mexico, February 2007, photo © 2007-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Sunrise On Taos Mountain, Taos, New Mexico, February 2007, photo © 2007-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.









welcome to Mabel’s
silent retreat in progress
foot of Taos Mountain




writers hone their craft
sitting in community
with nowhere to hide




silence changes you
in ways you have yet to know
let monkey mind be









A new year-long Writing Intensive with Natalie Goldberg begins Monday evening in Taos, New Mexico. Some of our writing friends will be there for the first week of writing in silence. They will return three more times with the same group of writers — in different seasons, with different books to read, as different people.

A year of silence changes you. ybonesy and I met in a Writing Retreat with Natalie and subsequently signed up for Natalie’s second year-long Intensive. red Ravine is one of the creative endeavors born of that time.

Gratitude to all the writers who show up to sit together, walk the moradawrite haiku, swim in the Rio Granderise for morning meditation. Who keep coming back. Who show up for each other through joy and pain, through laughter, tears — times when it feels like their minds are trying to kill them. Gratitude to mentors like Natalie who continue to teach us what they have learned about the practice of writing, no holds barred.

If you have any thoughts about writing or artist retreats you’ve attended, large or small — Iowa, Oregon, Georgia, California, Wisconsin, Paris, London, Nova Scotia  — we’d love to hear them. Below are a few links from writers who have shared their Taos experiences on red Ravine. We are all there, sitting and writing in solidarity.

Thanks to the Spirits of Mabel and Tony, and all at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House who work together to make these writing retreats possible. To the writers who came before us. And the quiet strength of Taos Mountain. Gassho.



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Alone Together – The Beginning Of The Petroglyph Practitioners
— meet a group of women who first met at one of Natalie’s Writing Retreats in Taos and continue to write together. Read the story of the mystery of the Petroglyph Rock in Mabel’s courtyard.

A Letter To Agnes Martin And A Surprise Reply — the story of a writer who meets a great artist at the Harwood Museum during one of the Taos Writing Retreats and the conversation that ensues between them.

Homing Instinct — when he was 16 or 17 years old, ybonesy’s father worked one summer at the Mabel Dodge Luhan place. She said Mabel herself was gone, but an English author hired her father to help put in the flagstone. Read more about ybonesy’s journey.

Sitting In Solidarity — the experience of Taos on one December retreat with photographs of the zendo and grounds at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House. When you spend a year in community with other writers, it recreates the dynamics of family — for better or worse. Healing. Or letting go.

The Last Time I Was In Taos — The Great Mantra – when you sit with other writers over a period of a year, babies are born, mothers and fathers die, relatives pass on, people fight and forgive, all right here, right now. Silence creates space to receive, and let go. More about the Great Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra.

If You Could Go Back In Time — Mabel headed to Taos in the 1920’s. It was a New Age when many writers and artists were co-creating artists’ colonies and writing spaces all over the globe. A fotoblog of Mabel’s and some history about the writers and artists of that time. Explores the value of place and home, including Kiowa, the D. H. Lawrence Ranch just outside of Taos, New Mexico.


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     Welcome To Mabels, Taos, New Mexico, February 2007, photo © 2007-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.    Welcome To Mabels, Taos, New Mexico, February 2007, photo © 2007-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

  Welcome To Mabel’s, Taos, New Mexico, February 2007, photo © 2007-2009
   by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


Taos Mountain — the Mountain is sacred to the Taos Pueblo Indians. You can feel her presence always there, sitting, walking, writing — rain, snow, wind, and hail. Summer heat, freezing nights, spring mornings, cottonwood afternoons. She is there. You can see more of her in: haiku for the years , mountain haiku , Taos Mountain Haiku, Missing The Mountain. Or in the photo set Taos.


-posted on red Ravine, Saturday, February 21st, 2 days before the beginning of the 3rd year-long Writing Intensive with Natalie Goldberg

-related to posts: Make Positive Effort For The Good, haiku 2 (one-a-day)

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Coneflower, Minneapolis, Minnesota, July 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Coneflower, Minneapolis, Minnesota, July 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.



This is the sequel to red Ravine’s haiku (one-a-day), a practice born from reading Clark Strand’s Seeds from a Birch Tree: Writing Haiku and the Spiritual Journey during a year-long Writing Intensive with Natalie Goldberg in Taos, New Mexico. Last year we had a great response from our readers to the practice of writing a haiku or senryu each day, and wanted to continue the practice into the New Year.

The idea for the sequel post came after doing further research on the history of haiku. This year’s challenge is to co-create and build on the poems of other haiku writers, a kind of word play running through the poetic forms of tanka and renga.



haiku & senryu (part one)


Haiku uses simple, direct language, words that evoke a season, and usually incorporates a cutting or pivot word, so that one half of a haiku seems to speak to the other. According to Patterns In Poetry, haiku is closely tied to the Japanese aesthetic of Yugen and the spirituality of Buddhism. It is written in a 17-syllable form (usually three lines of 5-7-5) that looks deceptively simple. Yet if you read the work of the masters like Basho, Buson, and Issa, wandering poets who lived during Japan’s Edo-period (1600-1868), it becomes clear that the practice of haiku can take years to master.

Senryu is similar to haiku but strays from seasonal or nature themes. According to Simply Haiku, senryu focuses on people and portrays characteristics of human beings and foibles, and the psychology of the human mind. Senryu can express human misfortunes or the hardships of humanity, and even when they depict living things or inanimate objects, human attributes are emphasized.

What both haiku and senryu have in common is that they derive from a form of Japanese court poetry called tanka.


Characteristics of haiku:

  • 17 syllables, 3 lines (with variations for language differences)
  • Simple, direct, non-metaphorical language
  • Captures a transitory insight or moment in time called satori or the aha moment
  • Contains a kigo, an image of nature that evokes a particular season
  • Contains a cutting or pivot word that turns the movement of the poem
  • Based on experience, speaks of the common, in the moment, just as it is

 

tanka (part two)


Tanka, the oldest Japanese poetry form, was often written to explore religious or courtly themes and had a structure of five lines with a  5-7-5-7-7 syllable structure. One person would contribute the first three lines (5-7-5) of the tanka, and a different author would complete the poem by composing a 7-7 section and adding a pivot point such as in this tanka from George Knox at Aha! Poetry:


in the check-out line
a worn face ahead of me
turns tentatively. . .
realities of desire
fade in final reckoning

-tanka by George Knox


There is an excerpt from an article, Come Pivot With Me by Jane Reichhold which explains the pivot point or bridge in this way:

The use of a pivot word is a beloved technique from tanka, still being used after 1,300 years, in that form and its much younger grandchild — haiku (only 3 centuries old).

One of the trademarks of a tanka (besides the traditional five lines of 5-7-5-7-7 onji — syllables) is a short poetic statement depicting nature (here it may seem much like something you could call a haiku) which is linked to a designated feeling or emotional attitude of the author. This latter aspect is a basic one dividing the two forms today.

By expressing emotional feelings tanka affirms a connectedness between something unseen but real — our feelings — with the observable world around us. Tanka gives the mind a picture which can, if it is successful, joins for and evokes a felt emotional state.


Characteristics of tanka

  • 31 syllables, 5 lines
  • Write the first section of a tanka (5-7-5), similar to a haiku.
  • Another person picks up the first 3 lines and writes a response (or continuation) by composing two lines of 7-7 syllables.
  • Can reflect nature or lean toward senryu
  • Emotional, contemplative, imaginative, reflective, written to be chanted


Here’s a final example of classic tanka from the same site, translated from the Kokinshu by Donald Keene, and written by Anonymous:


Because there was a seed
A pine has grown even here
On these barren rocks:
If we really love our love
What can keep us from meeting?

-tanka by Anonymous
 


renga (part three)


Renga (linked elegance) is a form of linked poetry which evolved from tanka, the oldest Japanese poetry form. In renga’s 800 year history it has gone through many ideological changes. (And it was Basho who, after 500 years, snipped off the first three lines of renga to form haiku.)

In renga, one person would often contribute the first three lines (5-7-5) of the poetic chain and a different author would complete the chain by composing a 7-7 section. Then another author would build on the previous 7-7, with another 5-7-5 passage. This chaining of verses or renga, could sometimes add up to hundreds of linked tanka.

The first part of the poem, called hokku or “starting verse,” frequently sets the tone for the rest of the poem, and the authors of hokku often earned the respect and admiration of their fellow poets. By the 19th century, largely through the work of Masaoka Shiki, hokku began to be written and read as individual poems. From the word hokku derives our word haiku.


Characteristics of renga:

  • Write the first section of a tanka (5-7-5), similar to a haiku. Hand this poem to another person.
  • Second person writes a response (or continuation) by composing two lines of 7-7 syllables. Then the second person hands off the completed tanka to a third person.
  • Third person writes another 3 lines of (5-7-5), beginning a new tanka
  • Continue in this way until you run out of time or feel that the poem is complete.
  • Contains a bridge or pivot point that links to the emotional element
  • Don’t try to force the storyline. When writing a response to the previous poem, focus only on the last section of the tanka, not the whole poem.
  •  Think of each stanza as a springboard from which you are going to jump. The important thing to watch is what happens between the links. 



Petals, Minneapolis, Minnesota, July 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.Petals, Minneapolis, Minnesota, July 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.Petals, Minneapolis, Minnesota, July 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.Petals, Minneapolis, Minnesota, July 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.



haiku practice


Feel free to drop a haiku into this space anytime, day or night. Or join the word play and collaborative effort of tanka and renga. I’m a novice at the latter two; the first time I read about tanka and renga was when I started the research on this post. I thought it might be fun to explore these ancient forms of linked poetry, and see where the journey takes us.

Also, it’s okay to experiment, break form, and move out of the traditional structures. English syllables translate differently than onji. And according to Richard MacDonald (from his essay What is Tanka?), Japanese poetry is syllabic by nature and not metrical or rhymed, because like the French language, the Japanese language lacks stress accents.

There are different schools of thought about how rigid one should be in counting syllables. From what I have read, it is a matter of personal taste whether to stay close to the Japanese model, or stray from it for personal reasons or aesthetics in order to incorporate the heritage of the West into poetic work. The most important thing is to have fun with it. Last year’s practice was so enjoyable, I can’t wait to see the new collection we have by December!


Option 1 – haiku

  • Drop in a haiku or senryu, 17 syllables, 3 lines (with variations for language differences)

Option 2 – tanka

  • Grab another poet’s haiku, and write the 2 additional 7 syllable lines to create a tanka

Option 3 – renga

  • Grab a tanka created by 2 other poets, and, focusing on the last 2 lines, start the beginning of a new tanka (5-7-5) to be completed by the next poet


Petals, Minneapolis, Minnesota, July 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.Petals, Minneapolis, Minnesota, July 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.Petals, Minneapolis, Minnesota, July 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.Petals, Minneapolis, Minnesota, July 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

 

DEFINITIONS:


bridgeword, or words leading the reader from the nature image to the statement of emotion

cutting (kireji) Punctuation mark or word that divides a haiku into two parts. A cutting can be a hyphen, ellipses, colon or a word.

kigoA seasonal reference in haiku. Usually a kigo has accumulated resonances and associations with earlier haiku and Japanese aesthetics about time.

onji Japanese syllables. The language differences between Japanese and English are vast and complex. Converting onji to syllables may not always be a one for one process.

pivot word A word in a haiku poem that changes, or turns the direction of the poem

rengaJapanese poetic form made up of linked tanka verse; the word renga means “linked elegance”

satori A moment of insight or reflection that emerges in a Haiku poem (usually around the cutting or pivot word)

tanka Japanese poetic form that is made up of 5 lines with a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable count. Haiku derives from tanka.

yugenJapanese term for beauty that suggests mystery, depth and a tinge of sadness


RESOURCES USED IN WRITING THIS PIECE:



-posted on red Ravine, Monday, February 9th, 2009

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Make Positive Effort For The Good, Sand Graffiti on Lake Michigan, Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, May 2008, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Make Positive Effort For The Good, Sand Graffiti on Lake Michigan, Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, May 2008, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.



I bumped into a coworker in the file room this morning. She said she finally looked at her 401K; she lost $7000. The Presidential candidates debated in a town hall forum tonight. Millions of people tuned in. Win, lose, or tie, how do we keep our center?

I’m not always that good at it. I need a little help. Practice can be anything you come back to that grounds you, moves you back to center. red Ravine was built on the premise that writing is a spiritual practice. Writing Practice can be a sane thread through the constant unraveling.

I pulled Bones and Wild Mind off the shelf after work this afternoon. The dog-eared corners lead me where I need to go — the deep-seated roots of three things Natalie learned from Katagiri Roshi. She passed them on to all of us. I thought her words might be helpful during these uncertain, anxious, and fearful times.

Three friends and I went on a weekend writing and meditation retreat last May. On one of our silent afternoon breaks, I sat by Lake Michigan writing haiku in a red notebook, and slow walked barefoot along the sand, carrying a big stick (no Presidential pun intended). Sand graffiti emerged from the fingertip of a white pine. I like to think the angels were cheering for us.

Continue, continue, continue.



Make Positive Effort For The Good


During all the thick days of my divorce eight years ago, only one thing helped. I remember Roshi saying, “Make positive effort for the good.” For me it meant, “Get up and get dressed. Just get up.” He meant to make human effort under all circumstances. If you make effort, beings seen and unseen will help. There are angels cheering for us when we lift up our pens, because they know we want to do it. In this torrential moment we have decided to change the energy of the world. We are going to write down what we think. Right or wrong doesn’t matter. We are standing up and saying who we are.

-Natalie Goldberg, from Wild Mind – Living The Writer’s Life, Chapter 37: Positive Effort, Bantam Books, 1990



Dont Be Tossed Away, Sand Graffiti on Lake Michigan, Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, May 2008, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Don’t Be Tossed Away, Sand Graffiti on Lake
Michigan, Sheboygan County, Wisconsin,
May 2008, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey.
All rights reserved.



Don’t Be Tossed Away


Don’t be tossed away by your monkey mind. You say you want to do something — “I really want to be a writer” — then that little voice comes along, “but I might not make enough money as a writer.” “Oh, okay, then I won’t write.” That’s being tossed away. These little voices are constantly going to be nagging us. If you make a decision to do something, you do it. Don’t be tossed away. But part of not being tossed away is understanding your mind, not believing it so much when it comes up with all these objections and then loads you with all these insecurities and reasons not to do something.

-Natalie Goldberg, from Writing Down The Bones — Freeing The Writer Within, Afterward, Shambala Publications, 1986



Continue Under All Circumstances, Sand Graffiti on Lake Michigan, Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, May 2008, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Continue Under All Circumstances, Fading
Sand Graffiti on Lake Michigan, Sheboygan
County, Wisconsin, May 2008, photo © 2008 by
QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.



Continue Under All Circumstances


Our senses by themselves are dumb. They take in experience, but they need the richness of sifting for a while through our consciousness and through our whole bodies. I call this “composting.” Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat, and very fertile soil. Out of this fertile soil bloom our poems and stories. But this does not come all at once. It takes time. Continue to turn over and over the organic details of your life until some of them fall through the garbage of discursive thoughts to the solid ground of black soil.

…Katagiri Roshi said: “Your little will can’t do anything. It takes Great Determination. Great Determination doesn’t mean just you making great effort. It means the whole universe is behind you and with you — the birds, trees, sky, moon, and ten directions.” Suddenly, after much composting, you are in alignment with the stars or the moment or the dining-room chandelier above your head, and your body opens and speaks.

Understanding this process cultivates patience and produces less anxiety. We aren’t running everything, not even the writing we do. At the same time, we must keep practicing. It is not an excuse to not write and sit on the couch eating bonbons. We must continue to work the compost pile, enriching it and making it fertile so that something beautiful may bloom and so that our writing muscles are in good shape to ride the universe when it moves through us.

This understanding also helps us to accept someone else’s success and not to be too greedy. It is simply that person’s time. Ours will come in this lifetime or the next. No matter. Continue to practice.

-Natalie Goldberg, from Writing Down The Bones — Freeing The Writer Within, Composting, Shambala Publications, 1986



-posted on red Ravine, Tuesday, October 7th, 2008, with gratitude to Natalie

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Naked at Birth, Aunt Olivia’s poppy in Taos before blooming,
photos of flowers © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.




Early in his book Seeds from a Birch Tree: Writing Haiku and the Spiritual Journey, Clark Strand laments that we Americans have lost the vital connection to nature that haiku requires. This essential something is “the sketch from life.” Just as the landscape painter draws what he sees outdoors, the sketch from life is a way for writers to see nature as if for the first time.

In America, as we come to the end of the 20th century, it is questionable whether we ever really see nature at all. Most of us live our lives behind walls. We drive nearly everywhere we go. We work in temperature-controlled environments. When snow falls, we salt our driveways to melt it right away. Few if any of us know the names of more than twenty birds or flowers.

Did you catch the last sentence? Few if any of us know the names of more than twenty birds or flowers.

Because we have lost our connection to nature, Strand goes on to say, modern people carry a feeling of loss. We carry a unique sadness, which may account for why many of us feel that our lives have lost meaning.




                 poppy                                columbine

 




Morning glory!
Another thing
I will never know

~Basho





              wild rose                                geranium

 


 

Few if any of us know the names of more than twenty birds or flowers.

It’s a simple thing, being able to name flowers. Yet, it’s true — many of us don’t know the names of even the flowers that grow in our own yards, much less the bigger world around us.

Let me show you. Here are the flower names I know:

rose, hollyhock, lilac, delphinium, larkspur, columbine, iris, lily, geranium, pansy, petunia, zinnia, marigold, cosmos, dahlia, snapdragon, sweet william, sweet pea, morning glory, bird of paradise, daisy, sunflower, lavendar, flax, poppy, porchulaca, gladiolus, tulip, daffodil, cornflower, mum, mexican primrose, datura, statice, bachelor button, black-eyed susan, carnation, hyacinth, yarrow, lambs ear, aster, poinsettia…

Ah, that wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Still, do you have any idea how many flower names I don’t know? Hundreds? No, thousands. Botanists estimate there are more than 240,000 flowering plants in the world!



  


Natalie Goldberg, in her book Old Friend from Far Away, offers these suggestions, among many, for writing memoir:

  • Use your senses.
  • Get concrete.
  • Stay detailed.


These recommendations are related to being connected to nature, to knowing the names of flowers and birds. Open your eyes. Carry with you on nature walks a book of flowers that grow in your part of the world, and when you come upon a blossom you don’t know, look up its name.

Summer is one of the best times to learn the names of flowers. Just the basics. Great if you can distinguish between a California poppy and an Oriental one, but isn’t it enough to know a poppy from a primrose? And how much more rich my writing if I can paint a picture of the decades-old potted geraniums, ancient and spidery, versus just talking about the potted plants my mother-in-law tends.

So do this: walk around your yard or down the road, to a place where flowers are in bloom. Which ones do you know? Look at the ones you don’t know. Consult your book to see what they’re called.

Come back and write about flowers. Use their names. Or, if you prefer, pick a flower you knew by name and write only about that one.

Walk, observe, write. For fifteen minutes. Prose or haiku.

When you’re done with this Writing Practice, keep on learning the names of those flowers. Your writing will blossom.



Cornflower Blue, wild cornflower blooming on Morada Lane,
photo © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.



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Natalie Goldberg, image by Mary Fiedt, all rights reserved.     Old Friend from Far Away, image provided by Simon & Schuster, all rights reserved.
Old Friend from Far Away by Natalie Goldberg, images provided by Simon & Schuster, photo of Goldberg © 2008 by Mary Feidt. All rights reserved.




On Thursday, April 10, QuoinMonkey and ybonesy interviewed Natalie Goldberg, author of the recently released Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir. The interview was especially meaningful in that red Ravine originated from a friendship, and vision, developed while QM and ybonesy were in a year-long writing Intensive with Goldberg, in Taos, New Mexico.

Goldberg had just completed a book tour across several Western states when QM and ybonesy spoke with her from her Santa Fe home. They talked about the new book and about Goldberg’s life as a writer and painter, friendships that sustain her, the loneliness of writing, and the most important thing she’s learned from her students.



Interview with Natalie Goldberg, April 10, 2008, red Ravine


red Ravine: There’s a moving passage in Old Friend From Far Away on page 69, which I’m going to read: 

In 1977 on Morada Lane in a small adobe behind a coyote fence I taught the first writing practice group to eight Taos Women. For the last twenty years I have taught these same workshops at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House a few hundred yards farther up on Morada Lane. I joke: I have not gone a very far distance in my life.
     Students come and go. Eventually we all will die. I fear I will have forgotten to die. I’ll be standing in front of the class after everyone I know has long passed.
     “Class, get out your pens.”
     Please help me. If all of you write right now, maybe I can let go and die too. My job will be complete.

Talk about what that passage means, Natalie.

Natalie: Basically, I had this feeling one day that everybody was going to die and I was still going to have to keep teaching Writing Practice; that it was so important and so essential and people weren’t going to let me die. They were just going to keep coming and studying with me and that my books wouldn’t have given enough.

What I didn’t say actually in that chapter is that I hoped to make a book that would be like studying with me. I wanted to make this book — the structure and the rhythm — so that it was the closest to what it’s like to be in the classroom with me. So that someday I, too, can die. I think when we die, finally, we really completely let go. I don’t think I’d be able to completely let go unless I felt there was some record students could follow to learn this wonderful Practice.


red Ravine: Years ago, at the beginning of your adult life when you were in the midst of studying with Katagiri Roshi, you were on a path toward assuming that lineage. What caused you to move away from that path and go with writing instead?

Natalie: That’s a good question. We complain about our lives, but the truth is we usually get what we want. A lot of people say, “I wanted to write and I wanted to do this.” If they really wanted it and it really burned in them, they would do it and they would figure it out. And not everybody has that.

Some people are happy taking classes, milling around with writing, and the truth is they like their lives and they like their jobs. I found that I put in time with writing. When it came down to the wire, my ass was on the line for writing. Even though I showed up all the time for Zen, when you asked me, my drive was for writing.

So it actually happened very naturally. We worry so much, What should we do, what should we do? but life also unfolds. For you (addressing QuoinMonkey), for example, you keep talking about wanting to teach Writing Practice, but we don’t know. And you’ve had some offers, but, finally, you’ll see if it unfolds and if it feels right for you.

You know that’s true with everybody. What we want unfolds. So I think I saw that writing was where I really put my life, my whole life. And even though I deeply, deeply loved Zen, it wasn’t in the same way, deep in the musculature of my body. I didn’t put my life on the line in the same way.

Now that I’m older I realize that I didn’t have to pick. That the two actually came together. But when you’re young you think you have to pick. When you’re young you can drive yourself crazy and think you have to pick. But look, Zen and writing, I can’t separate them. I didn’t choose one over the other. I chose both.


red Ravine: You also chose to be a writer and an artist. How do you balance those passions, and do you ever feel that you are more one than the other?

Natalie: I’m a writer. I know that. And when I’m painting a lot, I’m so in love with it. I think, Oh, I should have been a painter. But I wouldn’t be willing to do (for painting) what I’m willing to do for writing. I’ll go anywhere, face anything for writing.

Painting is my darling pleasure. And because it’s a pleasure, I don’t push myself a lot with it. Like what I said about writing and Zen, if I really look at it (painting), it’s important to me and it feeds my life and I relax with it. I relax and don’t worry about when I do it, if I do it.

For instance, I was in Point Reyes, California for a month in May, and I painted a lot then. Since I came home, I haven’t painted in over 6 months. So part of me thinks, Oh, painting is done. Then about three weeks ago, I realized, No painting’s not done. You’re writing these essays, and these essays use the same energy that painting does.

In a way, an essay is like a square canvas where I try to fit in as much detail as I can. That’s what I do with painting. I realized that I hadn’t been painting because I was painting with my writing. As soon as I realized that, of course, I’ve just done three paintings (laughs). I just went back into the studio.

People want a clear delineation: I write for four hours a day, then I paint for two hours. Life isn’t like that. It unfolds.

For instance, I was burning to learn abstract painting, which I talked about in Living Color. So, 15 years ago, I started to do it; I’d go out on a picnic table in Taos, in Kit Carson Park, and I’d just do abstracts, or what I thought were abstracts. I didn’t think they were that good. Literally, last night, I pulled out those notebooks and they’re some of the best abstracts I’ve ever done. They’re wonderful.

Do you see what I mean? We have the idea that, No, they should be better now because I’ve been doing it for 15 years. But maybe when I was really burning for them was when they really came to me. There’s no linear thing. Basically, you have to have a soft heart and a willingness just to make that first step and step in. And you get wet.

Just like you (addressing ybonesy). You have an important straight job, and then you go to half time for a while so you can do more art. Then you go back to full time. Our life is a spiral. And you also realize, I like this work I do. And I like painting. It doesn’t have to be either/or.


red Ravine: One of the things we want to talk about is loneliness — because writing is lonely. There’s a chapter in Writing Down the Bones called “Engendering Compassion” where you talk about the Black Dog, Loneliness. You say, “When I don’t feel loneliness, I know I’m not in connection with the edge of my life. I look around for that Black Dog, Loneliness, and make sure it’s near me.” After 35 years of writing and teaching, has your relationship with the Black Dog changed? And when you feel lonely or empty, where do you go to refill the well?

Natalie: That’s a really good question. I want to say, “Oh yes, I have a much better relationship with it,” but right now, I’m dealing with (the fact that) my mother died three months ago. So the loneliness is so deep. Whatever engendered it when I was a child is just burning in me now.

Everything I think I know about loneliness has been swept under and I just feel this gnawing emptiness. And it’s painful. The only thing I know is to try to have a little bit of softness toward it and allow it to be, and at the same time not allow it to take over my entire life.

It’s a very tricky thing. But I do want to say that, yes, a writer’s life can be very lonely. That’s why it’s so important to have writing friends. Don’t expect the agent or the editor or the publishing world to be your friend and to be your support. You need writing friends who understand what you’re doing and support you and that you can share this hard and wonderful process with.


red Ravine: Natalie, speaking of friends, do you have a writing friend who has stuck with you through everything?

Natalie: Yeah, Rob Wilder and Eddie Lewis, I’ve been friends with for over 20 years. I’d say also, John Thorndike, though he lives in Ohio now. He used to live in New Mexico and he was a deep writing friend and still is.

But the people who live near are Rob and Eddie and Henry Shukman, too, but he’s English so often he’s in England for long periods. But Eddie and Rob have been consistently there, people I can always rely on. That’s been very important to me.

I know when I have something, I can share with them, I can talk about it. Knowing that I have them, I don’t even call that much. But I know that they’re there. Sometimes just knowing that person’s there is very important.


red Ravine: Can you talk a little bit about what happens to the friendship when you are working on a book?

Natalie: Yeah, sometimes there are periods when I’m working a lot, that Eddie is home a lot, he’s sort of like a housewife, so I’ll call him. Mostly we joke, or I’ll complain about writing. When I’m working on something I don’t talk a lot about it. I’ll just call and complain or ask how to spell something. Or, “Eddie what was that word? I need that word,” or we just joke. But I know he knows I’m writing. And he knows what that is.

And there’s Rob. I asked him and his wife (Lala Carroll) to help me when I read at Collected Works. I said, “Could you be my date?” Rob had a party for me afterwards. Eddie hung out with me and stayed with me at the bookstore. It’s almost mechanical sometimes — “Can you come to the reading with me?” or “Would you read what I wrote and tell me it’s wonderful?” (laughs)


red Ravine: At this moment who are your favorite painters and writers, and what books are you reading right now?

Natalie: I am reading a killer book. I’m almost done with it. I’m going to assign it to my students in the August retreat. It’s called Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden. I have 20 pages left, and it’s a magnificent book.

I’m reading that and right before that, Patricia Hampl, who wrote Romantic Education. She has a new memoir called The Florist’s Daughter that just knocked me out. It was a sensational book. No one writes memoir like Patricia Hampl.

I’m teaching at IAIA one night a week with Rob Wilder this Spring semester. (Institute of American Indian Arts is a federally-funded college for Native Americans, who attend from all over the country.) I have to say, my students in that class are some of my most favorite writers who I admire.

These kids have not been incorporated, in some ways, with all the politeness and all the neuroses of white American comfortable society. A lot of these kids come from very broken lives and they don’t have a lot of protection between them and wild mind. So when they write, it brings me back to the original way I learned how to understand Writing Practice. Because I really developed it with Chippewa kids and African American kids in Minneapolis and in Detroit.

They’re some of my favorite writers, these kids that I’m working with now. They’re not kids, they’re adults…They’re college kids, but their writing — they have no explanation. They just put things as they are. And they’re not aware that they’re not supposed to write about these things so they just lay it down on the page. I’m being incredibly inspired by them, remembering the origins of writing. That’s been very, very exciting for me.

In painting, well, I just love painting. Painting is my darling pleasure. When I went on the book tour, people would think I’d go to bookstores a lot. No, that’s my job! When I went into town, I’d go to the art museums and to galleries. That would relax me and give me a whole other outlet.

I love Wolf Kahn, Joan Mitchell. I love to look at local paintings. There’s a painter in Albuquerque who shows in Santa Fe, Tim Craighead. I’m just crazy about him. He shows at the Gerald Peters Gallery.

For the O’Keeffe Museum next week, I’m taking a group (on something) called Walks in the West, and I’m taking them to all the spots where Marsden Hartley painted. He spent a year in Taos. So we’re going to drive up and I’m going to take them for that slow walk to the cross. We’re going to have lunch at Mabel Dodge. It’ll be wonderful.

One more painter I just thought of I want to mention: David Park. I just wrote an essay about him. Helen Bigelow is a friend of mine and an old student who came to study with me at Mabel Dodge. Her father was David Park, and he was a contemporary of Richard Diebenkorn. He’s part of the California Figurative School. I saw an incredible painting of his hanging at the Whitney last year. He made it really big. He died when he was young, at 46.


red Ravine: In Old Friend From Far Away, and also from studying with you, we’ve heard you say that memoir isn’t necessarily about a person’s entire life; it can be about a portion of one’s life. You’ve written Long Quiet Highway about the portion of your life where you studied with Katagiri Roshi, and The Great Failure clarifying the truth you knew about that time in your life. What part of your life, Natalie, do you still want to write about?

Natalie: I’d kind of like to write about my mother. But it’s so complicated for me right now that I don’t see my way clear. Maybe at some point, I’d like to write about my mother.

Except for Banana Rose, I really haven’t written very much about my love life. And I’d kind of like to write about that, but I’m afraid that people who were my lovers will kill me (laughs). So I haven’t done that.

And I think I’d like to write something about what I know about Zen. Though I might have written that already in Old Friend From Far Away. Even though I didn’t mention Zen.


red Ravine: You’ve seen students drop everything in their lives and attempt to become writers. Why doesn’t it always work to get rid of the obstacles and just become a writer?

Natalie: Yeah, it doesn’t work, because suddenly you have all the time in the world and you freeze. It puts too much pressure on writing. Also, we’re social animals and writing is a lonely thing.

In a way, my mistake was to do writing full time. I missed having a job where I could just show up and have to work and have to forget about me and my writing and my life. I don’t think it’s a good idea.

In Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique — which came out, I think, in the 70’s — there was a study where housewives who had all day to clean the house by the end of the day didn’t get any of it cleaned. Those same women, when they got a full-time job, managed in the half hour before they went to work to get all their housework done.

It’s almost that you have more time to feel guilty that you’re not writing. I think that having a bit of a structure and knowing at 1 o’clock I have to go do my other job, it sort of kicks ass. You don’t have so much time to wander around. You have to write — sit down and actually do it.


red Ravine: Describe a typical day in your life. When you’re not promoting a book, what are you doing?

Natalie: I’m running a lot of errands, which I don’t seem to have done in Taos. But in Santa Fe I don’t know why I have so many errands to run (laughs).

I go to yoga classes 3 days a week, from 9:30 to 11. And the yoga class is right near my studio. So if I’m a good girl, I go to yoga and then immediately go to my studio. But then I have my computer at my studio, so I end up doing a lot of business first. And then settling down, either sometimes to write or paint.

But if you really look at my life — at this point, I’ve been writing for 35 years — every book takes a different need, requires different things. For instance, I wrote a lot of Old Friend going on hikes, and at the same time I had broken up an 11-year relationship. My heart was broken. I would go to my studio and I just didn’t want to stay there. I’d go on these long hikes, and I’d bring my backpack, and luckily I brought a little notebook, not planning to write. But as I walked the world would open up for me. I’d sit down on the side of the trail and write whole chapters.

I can’t give you any prescription of my life. If you ask me, my life is kind of chaotic. Like today, after we’re done, I’ll go to this wonderful café near IAIA, which is way south of town, like 25 minutes. But I’ll go there and I’ll do some work for a few hours and then I’m going to go to a lecture at IAIA. I use things in the outside world to structure my inner life of writing.

I’m not a bulldog like I used to be where I pushed everything aside for writing. Writing fits in now and weaves in with the rest of my life. The human life just goes forward. But this is after 35 years where I have enough confidence. Also, I’m tired of making writing the first thing. I don’t need to anymore because I have enough confidence.


red Ravine: How are your creative processes around writing and painting different?

Natalie: When I’m writing it takes all of me. I mean every single cell. When I’m really writing it takes every cell in my body, total concentration, and my whole life is in it. My whole life is on the line.

When I’m painting, I’m whistling, I’m playing music, I’m just happy. The predominant emotion is happiness. With writing there isn’t any predominant emotion. My whole life is distilled into that task. And I give my life over into the tip of that task. I want to say my whole life is distilled into god — if god is everything.


red Ravine: In many respects, because of what you teach and how you teach it, you’ve become a symbol of the notion that anyone can write. Is it true — can anyone write?

Natalie: Absolutely. Yes. They might not become Faulkner. A lot of people don’t want to become Faulkner. But anyone can pick up that pen and express their human life. And if they want to they can get better and better at it. Everyone can write. Everyone should have access to writing. It’s a very human activity. Human beings want to have a place where they can express themselves in language.


red Ravine: What is the most important thing you’ve learned from your students.

Natalie: That I love them. I know this sounds odd but when I’m actually teaching, I have to keep a lot of boundaries. You took an Intensive with me, and I had to hold you when you kind of all hated me or didn’t want to come back. I had to hold your resistance and be a still point. That’s hard.

I have a tremendous amount of equilibrium when I teach and not a lot of opinion. But when I went on this book tour where I wasn’t the teacher, and my students showed up, I cannot tell you the overwhelming love I felt for all of you. I just couldn’t believe it.

Because, really, why am I willing to hold that all for you? It’s because I love you. I didn’t ever quite know that before. I would say things like, “because it’s practice, because this, because of that”…but I realize now, it’s because the love –- ‘cause I love you — that I’m willing to do it for all of you.

ybonesy: Wow, that’s really moving. (pause)


red Ravine: Do you ever get tired of teaching?

Natalie: Right now, I’m quite in love with it. There was a period, remember after The Great Failure came out, I took a year off. When I came back I hated teaching. I had never hated teaching. My teaching was really good, I could see everyone loved it, I knew it was good, the students were great — and I hated it. And I didn’t know what to do.

Every time I taught for several months, it was like that. It was actually taking everybody that week, when I took you all to Ghost Ranch, that something happened and it broke. After that I kind of loved it again. Not only kind of loved it; I loved it more than ever. Ever since then I just enjoy every time I teach. I’m so excited to share Writing Practice with everyone. And to share this wonderful thing that I know. I’ll be teaching for the rest of my life.


red Ravine: Natalie, what do you consider your greatest accomplishment in life so far.

Natalie: I guess, developing and recognizing Writing Practice, staying with it, continually giving it to the world.


red Ravine: In your next life, what would you like to be?

Natalie: An opera singer (laughs). Did you ever read The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather about a poor young girl in a small town in Colorado who becomes a great opera singer? I want to be an opera singer.


red Ravine: If it were your last day on earth, how would you spend it?

Natalie: Oh. I think I would be really sad. Because I would be grieving not seeing it anymore. Not seeing the trees, I’m looking out my window..the piñon tree, not seeing the sky, not having hands and feet. I think I would really be very deeply sad. And very still. Full of gratitude and grief.


red Ravine: Natalie, why do you write?

Natalie: Ummmm…because I’m a dope? (everyone laughs). Because…Of everything I do in my life, it feels the most real, the most to the point, and the most honest.


red Ravine: What are you working on next?

Natalie: I’m working on these essays. Some of them I’ve published in Shambhala Sun. I’m hoping to put together a collection of essays. I’m also working on something else which is a secret. None of my writing has ever been a secret before. But this is so different than anything I’ve written, I haven’t told anybody. And I don’t know when — maybe in 8 months or so — I’ll be able to say something.


red Ravine: As a writer and an artist, how do you define success?

Natalie: On one level it’s that I feel good about it and I enjoy it. That’s the real success. But because I’m a human being in the world, I like that I’m able to make a living at it, that I have it as my job, that I have a career with it. I don’t know if that’s success though. It’s pleasurable and I’m proud of it. But I think the real success is that I continue. And that I continually take pleasure in it. And that it’s alive for me.


red Ravine: Natalie, it’s really been a privilege to spend this time with you. We want to thank you. We thought we’d end by having you read us a passage from Old Friend from Far Away.

Natalie: I might read one I know I like. Okay, you ready? It’s called “Vast”:

Vast

We write memoir not to remember, not to cling, but to honor and let go. Wave after wave splashes on the shore and is gone. Your mother once wore an embroidered Mexican peasant shirt, had gleaming teeth and a full head of black hair. She pushed the hammock you lay in, a million oak leaves above your head. You didn’t know yet your first word. You were slow to learn to talk and your first step was as enormous as an elephant’s. Her waist was below her blouse and you could hide in a voluminous maroon skirt. Sharp was the blue sky, the white porch steps.
     Here’s your mother now, frail at one hundred pounds, hearing aids plopped above her lobes, eyes a pale glaze seeing only form and shadow, in her own crooked way heading for another country.
     Let her be as she is. You can’t save her. You can only remember as she dissolves. With one arm you reach all the way back and with your other arm you steady the walker that she grasps before her.
     But don’t fool yourself. However old your mother is, you are always walking into vast rooms full of beginnings and endings, abundant with possibility. Try the empty cubicle of your page. What can you scratch in it before your turn comes to step up to the vast ocean all by yourself? Go. Ten minutes.




Old Friend from Far Away, image provided by Simon & Schuster, all rights reserved.

Natalie: It was wonderful to do an interview with the two of you. I love you both and take good care. And I feel honored and thank you for doing this for red Ravine.


QuoinMonkey: I feel so much gratitude for studying with you. I really appreciate you. Thank you so much.







red Ravine posts about Natalie Goldberg:



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Heart to Hands, Natalie Goldberg at Bookworks in Albuquerque, photo © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved. (QuoinMonkey started the Writers’ Hands series; this photo is in that fashion yet not of the series. Deep bow to QM for the inspiration.)

 

 

It’s been almost a month since I went to Bookworks on Rio Grande Boulevard in Albuquerque’s Rio Grande valley to hear Natalie Goldberg read from her new book, Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir.

Bookworks is a small bookstore, one of the few independents left in the city. Every nook is packed with something — books, journals, cards, stationery. It’s the kind of bookstore that makes you feel like you’ve walked into the living room of an eccentric old bibliophile.

It was amazing they fit in as many chairs as they did — four rows, about ten chairs in a row. Which means, 40 of us were sitting — the ones lucky enough or smart enough to get there early. I snagged the last chair, tucked against a bookshelf. I didn’t see it until I’d been standing for ten minutes. I was relieved to sit.

Every other open space in the bookstore was then filled with mostly women, mostly my age or older, standing. They were like water flooding the store. They lined the aisles, one person standing behind another standing behind another. It was vaguely reminiscent of the midnight sale of book seven in the Harry Potter series, except on a smaller scale.

A woman I knew, a recent transplant from Denver, sat two chairs over from me. We leaned in to chat about how excited we were to see Natalie. The woman motioned with her chin around the room. “I can’t believe we didn’t have to stand in the line to get in. If this were in Denver, they’d have to sell tickets, and there’d be a line just to buy the tickets.” She was right. Albuquerque is still a town masquerading as a city.

Natalie arrived late. She was calm; she’s always calm. She tried sitting in the wingback chair they had set up for her in the front of the store, but when she did, she could only see the people in the first row. Instead she pushed aside a display of small bunnies — Easter paraphernalia — and climbed atop a platform normally used for merchandise.

“Ah, that’s better,” she smiled as she looked around the room.

 

It’s hard this many weeks later to summarize what Natalie said. From my notes, I offer these few gems:

  • Of the recent memoir debacle, where a young memoirist was busted for falsely portraying herself as a half Native American, half-white foster child involved with gangs in South-Central LA, Natalie said that this fabrication and others like it are an indication of how much energy there is around memoir.
  • She said people who want to write memoir sometimes think they need to span their entire lives. Writing memoir isn’t about writing your life — birth to however old you are now. It can be writing about a portion of your life: My life with men. My life with chocolate.
  • Old Friend from Far Away is, according to Natalie, the closest experience you’ll have to being in the classroom with her. Having read several chapters in the book and having spent many weeks in her workshops, I can vouch — it’s as if I’m there all over again.
  • She said the book is structured the way it is for a reason: so readers won’t freeze on any one chapter in the book. No hanging a section like you would a poem on your refrigerator. She wants us to read the whole book; “It was made with the whole mind.”

 

       

 

Natalie read three or so chapters from the book. In one titled “One Thing” (p.247) I recognized immediately a fellow student of Natalie’s who participated in the same year-long intensive that QuoinMonkey and I attended. “Just Sitting — Or Doing the Neola” (p. 82) was inspired by another student. I smile now thinking how much the essence of her students is captured in this book.

 

               Thank you
               Sky and tree
               Big and small
               Green and red

               The taste of chocolate
               Bread and pinto beans

               This land and other lands

               Past and future
               Human, dog and zebra

               Everything you know–
               And the things you don’t

               Hunger, zest, repetition
               Homesickness,
               Welcome.

               This is for all my students

                          ( ~ the dedication in Old Friend from Far Away)

 

Of the chapters she read, my favorite was “Fulfilled” (p. 275). Many of us were in tears. The chapter is for us, every one of us who’s ever wanted to write. It’s long for an excerpt, and much as I’ve tried to shorten it, here it is almost in its entirety:

 

The author Willa Cather believed that if you had a wish for something from a young age–for example, being an opera singer–and you continually made effort at it, you would live a fulfilled life. It didn’t matter if you were on stage at the Metropolitan; maybe you sang in a local theater; perhaps you took lessons and belted it out in the shower and at family gatherings. That was good enough. The important thing was to stay connected with your dream and that effort would result in a basic happiness.
       Cather said that those who gave up carried something painful, cut off inside, and that their lives had a sense of incompleteness.
       …
       …
       Don’t let the light go out. Get to work, even if the going is slow and you have six mouths to feed and two jobs.
       A few years ago I was invited to meet with the creative writing students in a graduate program at a big midwestern university. When I asked what their plans were, eight out of the ten, turning up their empty palms, said, well, the most we can hope for is a job at a community college. We know it’s hard out there in the book world.
       I was quiet and looked down. In their heart of hearts I wanted them to be thinking: Tolstoy, Garcia Lorca, Jane Austen, Proust, Alice Walker, Naguib Mahfouz, Virginia Woolf, Chinua Achebe. They seemed beaten-down, too practical, too rational at such young ages. All of them should have been hungry to step up to the plate and smack the ball home. What happened?
       Great writers do not write so that their readers will feel defeated. They wait for us to blow on the embers and keep the heat going. It is our responsibility. When we understand this, we grow up. We become a woman. We become a man.
       No institution can give you this authority; though you may learn many wonderful things there. Like a little bird, you must open your small beak and feed yourself one drop of rosewater at a time, then a kernel of corn, a single sesame seed, even a tiny pebble. Keep nourishing yourself on great writers. You will grow from the inside out and stand up on the page.
       No protest, no whining. Right now take a nibble of bread. Make a bit of effort. It does not have to be enormous. Just go in the right direction and the trees, insects, clouds, bricks of buildings will make a minute turning with you and salute you.

 

After Natalie signed my book and I snapped shots of her signing it and the person’s behind me, I said goodbye, tucked my camera into my pocket, and turned to leave. Natalie called out to me: “Send everyone my love on the blog.”

 

 

-related to posts, Natalie Goldberg — Old Friend From Far Away (Two Good Reasons to Buy Independent), Natalie Goldberg — 2000 Years Of Watching The Mind, Beginner’s Mind, More About The Monkey

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Do You Let Yourself Read?, Minneapolis, Minnesota, October 2007, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Do You Let Yourself Read?, Minneapolis, Minnesota, October 2007, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.



I had a voicemail from one of my writing friends yesterday. She said she was frustrated because she wasn’t giving herself time to read. Last year, she had structured it in:  made a reading list, read the Classics over Summer, devoured books to feed the hunger — to be close to other writers.

This year, it was hard to give herself space.

I was relieved to get her call. I had the same thought process rushing through my head. I set aside one day a week (read — 5 hours) to work on my creative writing projects:  to map out chapters, daydream, doodle, jot down ideas; to transcribe recordings from last June for my memoir; to scribble thoughts, future writing topics — to stare out the window and daydream.

I’m listening to Anne Lamott’s Word By Word in the car, to and from work (books on tape (CD) are the greatest!). She says every writer, every creative person, needs time to just sit and stare out the window.

You have to slow down and create space in your life for ideas to surface. Staring out the window can be productive for a writer.

Last year I was religious about giving myself time. I had the structure of a year long Writing Intensive with Natalie Goldberg to guide me. She assigned books to us, great literature to read. I read so many good books over the last two years.

What’s going on now?



   Do You Let Yourself Read?, Minneapolis, Minnesota, October 2007, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.Do You Let Yourself Read?, Minneapolis, Minnesota, October 2007, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.Do You Let Yourself Read?, Minneapolis, Minnesota, October 2007, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.Do You Let Yourself Read?, Minneapolis, Minnesota, October 2007, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.



Yesterday, during the 5 hours set aside for writing, I wouldn’t give myself the time. I tried staring out the window through the ash and oaks, listening to crows and the pretty pretty, pretty of cardinals, daydreaming about my projects. I felt guilty.

I thought of everything I had do around the house:  give Kiev fresh water in her dish, make the unraveled bed, go through upcoming bills, slip in a load of laundry. I played tennis with Mr. StripeyPants on the bed. I fiddled with my hair. I took a long, hot shower. Still — no reading, no writing.

(Monkey Mind anyone?)

It took me a while to figure it out. What I really wanted to be doing was reading. Writers need to read other writers. People who have gone through the distracted pain, unspent joy, and daily soul-searching required to write a book.

I’ve started reading three books over the last month. I’m in the middle of Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend From Far Away, Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, and a book of Best American Essays – 1999. Not one of them have I finished.

Finally, late in the afternoon, I said, “Forget this!” (the language was not as kind), and settled in on the couch with Sinclair Lewis and Main Street. It felt so good to let myself read. I wandered the muddy streets of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, met Dr. Will Kennicott, and got lost in Carol Milford’s head.



Do you let yourself read?


  • WHAT:  What are you reading? And I’m not just talking about magazines, the New York Times, or MSN online. I’m talking books. Tell me what books you’re reading.
  • WHERE:  Where do you read? Propped up in bed, stretched out on the couch, in the tub, out on the porch swing?
  • WHEN:  When do you read — late at night, early in the morning?
  • HOW:  How do you read? Do you slow down and savor every word?
  • WHY:  Why do you like reading. What inspires you to pick up a book?


Reading is good for the Spirit. I come from a family of readers. My mother read a lot when we were growing up. When we didn’t know the answer to something, she encouraged us to head down the hallway and grab one of the black Collier’s encyclopedias from the corner bookcase.

Did your parents read to you when you were a child? Who taught you how to form words? It is not only writers who should read — everyone should pick up a good book.

If you’re reading, let’s talk books. Tell me the what, why, when, where, and how. If you’re not reading, tell me why. Why is it the last thing on your list?



    Writers' Hands VIII, Minneapolis, Minnesota, October 2007, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.Writers' Hands VIII, Minneapolis, Minnesota, October 2007, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.Writers' Hands VIII, Minneapolis, Minnesota, October 2007, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.



-posted on red Ravine, Saturday, February 23rd, 2008

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